Spirituals of the African American Freedom Struggle: Building Community and Organizing Protest

Copyright (c) Stanford University, Stanford, California
June, 2012

* Download 114-page thesis accepted in partial fulfillment for Master's of Liberal Arts degree, Stanford University, 2012

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Spirituals of the African American Freedom Struggle: Building Community and Organizing Protest
Chapter 1: Exodus--"Go Down, Moses" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain"
Chapter 2: Perseverance--"We Shall Not Be Moved"
Chapter 3: Freedom--"Oh Freedom"
Chapter 4: Community--"We Shall Overcome"


Freedom songs played a critical role in the civil rights movements of the sixties. Less known is their importance to the African American struggle for freedom over the past two hundred and fifty years. Two factors account for the power of music in the struggle: the emotional effects of the music, and the songs' suitability for grassroots organizing.

Spirituals composed between 1750 and 1850, and their musical descendants, comprise the greater part of this body of music, although protestors also adapted secular folk songs, modified contemporaneous popular songs, and composed new songs. Spirituals proved more effective than secular songs as protest music, and their music and rhythm gave later freedom songs their power and influence.

Narratives of the African American struggles for freedom follow the work of formal organizations and their leaders. But grassroots culture and bottom-up leadership sustained the civil rights movement and the struggle against slavery that preceded it. Freedom songs brought disparate communities together, and sustained and energized the movement. They expressed shared commitment, strengthened perseverance, and sometimes healed the divisions that arose after arguments among activists. According to one authority, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was effective despite its apparently leaderless structure and egalitarian principles because

songleading fostered a kind of organic and tacit leadership necessary
to conduct the day-to-day affairs of the movement. Songleading
functioned as a de facto authority from which other responsibilities
tended to flow. It is not coincidental that some of the most prominent
individuals in the history of the civil rights movement, including
Fannie Lou Hamer, James Farmer, Cordell Reagon, and Bernice Reagon,
were songleaders. 

The themes exodus, freedom, perseverance, and community infuse spirituals and their musical descendants, the protest songs or freedom songs. Each chapter in this thesis focuses on a spiritual that exemplifies one of these themes. The first chapter traces the history and influence of "Go Down, Moses." This nineteenth-century spiritual of exodus links directly to the civil rights era freedom song, "Go Tell It on the Mountain." Influential songleaders Harriet Tubman (associated with "Go Down, Moses") and Fannie Lou Hamer (strongly identified with "Go Tell It on the Mountain") led grassroots communities in the African American freedom struggle. Harriet Tubman led slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and was popularly known as Black Moses. Fannie Lou Hamer led protesters in the twentieth-century struggle against Jim Crow. Although people did not give Hamer the name "Moses," she led communities in singing the exodus-themed spiritual "Go Tell It on the Mountain," and like Moses of the biblical exodus, led people in the struggle against Jim Crow.

The somber nineteenth-century spiritual "No More Mourning" evolved into the joyous and celebratory "Oh Freedom." This thesis postulates that the African American freedom struggle evolved analogously. Myles Horton of the Highlander Folk School learned "No More Mourning" from an organizer of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union in the late 1930s and brought it back to Highlander. Zilphia Horton, Highlander's music director, wove it into the body of protest songs she taught for decades across the south during the labor movement, and it figured as one of the most prominent freedom songs of the sixties. "Oh Freedom" links songleaders and organizers John Handcox, Zilphia Horton, Joe Glazer, Guy Carawan, Bernice Reagon, and dozens more, all of whom used the freedom songs deliberately to organize resistance at the grassroots level. Despite its original sorrowful tune and lyrics, once transformed, "Oh Freedom" became a paradigmatic song of freedom, in addition to revealing links among protest movements and their grassroots leaders.

"We Shall Not Be Moved" and "We Shall Overcome," two spirituals used as protest songs, helped protesters persevere and come together as a community. They became anthems: "We Shall Not Be Moved" in the labor movement and "We Shall Overcome" in the civil rights movements. They reveal significant connections among songleaders of different generations and locales. Both anthems bridge the labor movement and civil rights movement, linking the grassroots organizations Highlander Folk School and SNCC. They connect songleaders and singers, famously Zilphia Horton and Guy Carawan, but also traditional folk communities and communities of Northerners, whites, secular African American students, and others who heard freedom songs for the first time during the civil rights movement.

These four prominent, influential, and long-lasting spirituals, among the hundreds used in protests, crystallize themes that permeate struggles. For example, exuberance and victory, the themes of "Oh Freedom," underscore that spirituals' themes ranged the spectrum of emotion, not limited to the wails heard in the sorrow songs analyzed by W.E.B Du Bois.

The intrinsic power of spirituals' music explains their influence in protest movements. Yet without the organizing efforts of grassroots leaders, the spirituals could not have been as effective as history shows. These two factors--the power of the music, and their deliberate use by grassroots organizers--account for their success.

Chapter 1: Exodus--"Go Down, Moses" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain"
Chapter 2: Perseverance--"We Shall Not Be Moved"
Chapter 3: Freedom--"Oh Freedom"
Chapter 4: Community--"We Shall Overcome"

To read Chapters 1-4 ...

* Download 114-page thesis submitted to Stanford University, June 2012

* Read 114-page thesis online


After 1965, the role of freedom songs changed and diverged. The Black Power movement explicitly rejected nonviolent resistance, and the music that was its soul and unifying principle. A great many popular songs of the sixties continued the tradition of freedom songs, and addressed Black Pride directly. James Brown's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," belonged to the new secular freedom songs, as did dozens of popular songs written and performed by African American artists in the mid to late sixties.

Bernice Johnson Reagon carried the flame to the women's movement, founding the musical group Harambees, and later, Sweet Honey in the Rock. As a scholar and historian, she has written histories and analyses of African American music and concomitant freedom struggle, and curated Smithsonian exhibits. She has continually composed and performed music since her time with the Freedom Singers in 1961-1962, and as a songleader through the sixties. As a contemporary songleader, she travels extensively, presenting music workshops and performances.

The spirit of freedom songs has not disappeared from African American music. In his 2010 book Decoded, he contemporary artist Jay Z describes hip hop and rap as the newspaper of the streets, much as freedom songs served as the newspaper of the movement. Links with the tradition are forming, as hip hop artists consciously align themselves with the music and spirit of freedom songs.

Every month, media reports the use of music in different protests around the world, invariably in the context of grassroots groups and street demonstrations--not political parties. In February 2012 in Senegal, protesters composed rap songs--an African American musical genre, albeit one with much in common with African musical traditions--that served as rallying cries, expressions of frustration and anger, and demands for change. Police detained the rap artists. The rappers and the other protesters said they will not be moved, and will not stop singing in protest until they achieve their political goals. As in other nonviolent resistance movements, the Senegalese youth vow to remain peaceful in opposition. NPR reported on February 19, 2012:

Senegal's capital of Dakar remains jittery, with youth and police
locked in running street battles. Riot police are firing tear gas on
rock-throwing protesters who oppose President Abdoulaye Wade's bid for
a third term in office.

Some of the protests have been led by rap artists. They have been
mobilizing the youth and putting pressure on Senegal's leader to step
down. They even have a name for their movement: Y'en a Marre. It means
"We're Fed Up. Enough is Enough." "The Y'en a Marre thing, everybody
was Y'en a Marre inside their chest," says Djily Baghdad, a rapper and
founding member of the movement. "Everybody had that Y'en a Marre
feeling. Everybody was fed up. So, as rap artists, we write songs to
protest about how people are crying."

The rappers have composed what's become an opposition anthem, a song
titled "Abdoulaye Faux! Pas Force," or "Abdoulaye, don't force it,
give up!" It was written by Kilifeu and Simon, two rappers that were
detained by police on Thursday.

You hear their song at Y'en a Marre's outdoor gatherings, which
attract hundreds of Senegalese youth. […] But Baghdad says rappers are
just trying to wake people up and convince the Senegalese that only
the people can bring change.

"We have this slogan called NTS: New Type of Senegalese," he
says. "That's what Y'en a Marre is trying to build, but [to] do it in
the most peaceful way."
The rappers, the opposition and other demonstrators vow they'll continue to protest and make Senegal ungovernable unless Wade withdraws his candidacy ahead of the upcoming vote. Closer to home, protesters in support of union organizing rights in Wisconsin in 2011 sang popular music in meetings, occupations of the state capitol building, and marches. The rock bands "Rage Against the Machine" and "Street Dogs" joined a ragtag band of musicians who had come to sing labor songs for the tens of thousands of workers rallying in the frigid weather outside the capitol. Street Dog's lead singer, Mike McColgan, is a Boston firefighter and proud member of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 718. He forged an aggressively pro-labor punk rock band that literally shouted, "Not Without a Purpose, Not Without a Fight!" For years, they integrated epic songs like "There Is Power in a Union" and new ones like "Unions and the Law" into concert repertoires. During street protests in Madison, "Wisconsinites, from toddlers to septuagenarians, jumped to the most rhythmic version anyone had ever heard of Woody Guthrie's 'This Land is Your Land'--or, perhaps, just jumped in hopes of staying warm."

Inside the occupied capitol building, to the eventual consternation of people sleeping in the building as part of the occupation, Native American drummers, music students and many others in the center of the rotunda chanted and drummed continuously. (They eventually moved their drumming and chanting so others would not be disturbed.)

The Street Dogs issued an open invitation to a free concert in the city's convention center. A few hours later, thousands of students and young workers overflowed the convention center, and the line of people stretched out the door into a cold snowy night, winds whipping off the city's lakes. During the concert, McColgan shouted "Madison, Wisconsin, let's get rowdy! I want to hear you! Sing it with me!" Lyrics in one of his songs condemn "dedication to corporate greed," assert "the pay up top is way too high, while those in the middle barely get by," and pledge to use the power of united labor. John Nichols, author of a recently published book about the Wisconsin protests, reports "[The lyric] 'Let's go and start it again' did not sound idealistic, let alone unrealistic. It sounded right and good and necessary. And when the guitars and the drums went silent and McColgan shouted 'Do it!' the fists were still held high and teenagers and college students shouted back, 'Yes! Do it!' "

As the weeks-long protests that involved tens of thousands of people from the local communities--teachers, fire fighters, police, city and state workers, sympathetic farmers who relied on communal bargaining rights to sell their products, students and non-unionized workers--dragged on, planned activities educated the crowds, including labor films shown each night on the wall of the capitol. Nichols writes:

Civil rights leaders led the crowd of occupiers in chants of "We Shall
Overcome," and nationally prominent singers appeared to give free
concerts from balconies, where just a few days earlier, lobbyists had
plied their dark arts. On the floor of the rotunda, Miles Kristan and
dozens of other young people maintained an open microphone where
workers, students, and musicians had their say through each day. There
were surrounded by drum circles that maintained a steady rhythm
through the day and into the evening, going silent only as this great
mass of humanity settled in to sleep on marble floors, steps, and
benches in a scene that was at once peaceful and anarchical, serious
and good humored, unprecedented and yet strangely reminiscent of a
past ...

If the "occupy" movements begun in 2011 evolve like the labor and civil rights movements, twenty-first-century leaders--possibly doubling as songleaders--will emerge from local, self-organized, grassroots, consensus-based groups--not from political parties. As in the civil rights movement, real community among disparate members of the protest must be forged before they achieve political victories as a group.

Spirituals--and other genres of music--as protest songs represented the journey (exodus) to freedom, articulating centuries-long nonviolent resistance. In the words of the old African American song from the eighteenth century,

O I'm gonna sing, gonna sing
   Gonna sing all 'long the way
O I'm gonna sing, gonna sing,
   Gonna sing all 'long the way.
The four spirituals analyzed in these pages stand individually as powerful songs, but took on greater influence as protest songs, and contributed to the slow progression of change. Songleaders led grassroots communities with songs; the communities gradually united to become formal and effective political organizations. Songleaders working as organizers, and the power of spirituals' music, brought communities together to persevere, until they "reached the promised land," and achieved victory and freedom.

Palo Alto, California
June, 2012