Music and the Civil Rights Movement

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day, music faculty member Marcus Rabb recounted these musical moments closely linked to the civil rights movement:

1.  “Lift Every Voice and Sing” – written by James Weldon Johnson to honor Booker T. Washington, it was first performed as a poem in 1900 before being set to music by John Rosamon Johnson, James’s brother.

2.  “Strange Fruit” – sung by Bille Holiday in 1939, “Strange Fruit” is a poem by Abel Meeropol protesting racism and lynching.

3.  Opera singer Marian Anderson sings at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 at the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt after Anderson was denied the opportunity to sing in front of an integrated audience by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

4. “Fables of Faubus” – released in 1959 by Charles Mingus in protest of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who sent the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock High School.

5.  In 1961, Ray Charles refused to perform to a segregated crowd in his home state of Georgia.  

6.  “Alabama” – written by John Coltrane in 1963 in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing by the Klu Klux Klan that killed four African-American girls.

7.  “A Change is Gonna Come” – released in 1964 by Sam Cooke, it became an anthem for the American civil rights movement.

8.  “Mississippi Goddam” – also released in 1964, this song became another civil rights movement anthem, written and performed by Nina Simone.

9.  In 1968, singer Harry Belafonte and Petula Clark touch on television, angering sponsors.

10  Also in 1968, James Brown performs in Boston after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and walked around Boston neighborhoods urging against rioting.

11.  Stevie Wonder campaigns to declare Dr. King’s birthday a holiday, singing “Happy Birthday to ya” in 1981.  The holiday was signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1983.