Musicians and The Civil Rights Movement

  by Justin Binder

There is a major difference between a song and an anthem. An anthem is more representative of the ideas of a country. A song is more lyrical in the sense that it does not as much embody the values and ideas of a country, but rather the values and and themes of a specific idea. Both songs and anthems have similar sounds, and they both have lyrics, but an anthem’s lyrics are more closely connected to the values of the country.

Some examples of anthems used during the Civil Rights Movement include: “We Shall Overcome,” “Lift Every Voice” and “A Change is Gonna Come.” 

The Civil Rights Movement began in 1954 and achieved the enactment of laws put in place through 1968, but the struggle for social justice and equality is ongoing, more than half a century later. The goal then was for African Americans to gain equal rights under U.S. law and jurisdiction. The act ended segregation in public places, banned discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, religion sex or national origin. It was first proposed by President John F. Kennedy, met by opposition, mainly in the south, and then signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Congress drew up this and in 1965 passed additional legislation including the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

Justin told MY HERO that he was inspired to write his essay, "Musicians and the Civil Rights Movement" after watching the Academy Award-winning movie The Green Book (2018).

Watch the trailer below.

James Weldon Johnson

Date of birth: June 17, 1871
Place of birth: Jacksonville, Florida Date of death: June 26, 1938

There is a deep history and story behind the poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This poem was written by James Weldon Johnson. Johnson is known mainly for his poetry and song writing. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was originally written as a poem, but became a song. There is deep meaning and a rich history that can be found within this poem song combination. Johnson was an advocate for the NAACP which is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1920, he became the NAACP “national organizer.” He also became passionate about using his poetry skills to share his ideas for equality. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a song that follows a thematic literary arc. This song is a riveting and complex portrait of the African American struggle. It quickly transformed from a song to an anthem, As Johnson’s poem was performed for Abraham Lincoln at his birthday party in his memory. After this performance, the song became somewhat of an anthem. It is an influential literary artifact because it represents an important time in history and has a deep meaning behind the lyrics. You can look back at this song and there is meaning and lyrical value to this song. Each part of the song has its own important meaning. Johnson’s poem was transformed into a song when it was set to music created by his brother John. of a country’s ideas and values.


Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,

Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee; 


Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land. 


James Weldon Johnson
Credit: Project Gutenberg

Nat King Cole


Date of birth: March 17, 1919
Place of birth: Montgomery, Alabama Date of death: February 15, 1965

Nat King Cole was an extremely talented and influential jazz musician. He was known for his skills as a pianist and vocalist, and he recorded hundreds of memorable songs. Nat King Cole encountered lots of racism during his career as a jazz musician. There was one terrible encounter of racism for Nat King Cole while he was on the the road. He was performing in Birmingham, Alabama. Police reports said that white men got onto the stage while he was performing and began to attack him. After the attack Nat King Cole launched a tv show on NBC. He also filed lawsuits against all of the places that did not let him in to perform. The attackers were never charged. 

Nat King Cole
Credit: Library of Congress Music Division

Sam Cooke


Date of birth: January 22, 1931 Place of birth: Clarksdale, Mississippi Date of death: December 11, 1964.

Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is a significant song that is still remembered to this day for its meaningful lyrics and influence that it brought to the civil rights movement. The song “A Change is Gonna Come” was first heard by the public on his album “Ain’t That Good News” in 1965. This song has similar themes and ideas to many other songs during the civil rights movement. The lyrics “It's been a long, a long time coming but I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will” are very important to understanding the overall themes and ideas of this song and current events at that time. One of the inspirations behind this song was an incident at a motel in Louisiana. It was when Cooke and his band were turned away from this motel in Louisiana as they were told it was a whites only motel. These themes of racism was noticed in “A Change is Gonna Come.” This song has ideas of racism being so prevalent, but it also addresses the world and the problems of the world in a positive way, and in a way that looks to the future. This is an uplifting anthem that creates positivity and motivation rather than a negative outlook of the world. It comes from a place that things will get better and there is always a brighter future to look forward to. Rather than looking at the negativity in the world, this song and melody encourages a positive framework to create positive change in the world.

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I've been running ev'r since
It's been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die
'Cause I don't know what's up there, beyond the sky
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep tellin' me don't hang around
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin' me
Back down on my knees, oh
There have been times that I thought I couldn't last for long But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long, a long time coming

But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will 

Sam Cooke
Credit: Wikipedia/Public Domain


Ray Charles was a much loved musician who was born in Albany, Georgia. When he went to school, he became passionate about music in St. Augustine, Florida. Ray Charles was one of the original musicians who’s style is “soul” music and his musical style of soul inspired an entire generation of soul musicians. Soul music is a genre of music that combines several other genres and styles of music. At St. Augustine school he started to play music in his school. His passion for music started when he began to play the piano, but at around the age of five, he began to lose his sight, and by the time he was seven, he was blind. St. Augustine school is significant because it helped Ray Charles discover a new genre of music, and there is still a deep connection with soul music. Ray Charles and the St. Augustine school will always be remembered as the place and person where soul music started.Ray Charles, also known as the inventor of soul music was very famous for many of his songs. One of his most memorable songs was “You’re in For a Big Surprise, “ which was written by Percy Mayfield. This song was a classic that became very popular for generations to follow the career and life of Ray Charles. This song is still performed in concert halls and remembered for the vibrant visual story and complex lyrical narrative that it depicts. There are many themes in this song and they all have to do with the overarching concept of a surprise and change. The lyrics of this song follow the same lyrical narrative that would come from telling a story with a surprise. This song would be a considered an anthem because of the lyrical relevance that it holds in today’s world and because of the significance that it had when it was written. This anthem is still being sung throughout the country and the world as a remembrance of Ray Charles and the impact that he left on the world through his lyrical and instrumental capabilities as a thriving musician.

I call you mister

I shine your shoes

You go away laughing while I sing the blues

You think I’m funny but you think you’re so wise, young man

Mm-hmm, but you are in for a big surprise 

Ray Charles
Credit: Maurice Seymour, New York.


DR. Martin Luther King’s birthday is a national holiday and globally recognized as a very important day of the year. Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday is a day where the world looks at his achievements in advancing the civil rights movement and moving the country and parts of the world towards equal rights. Stevie Wonder’s song “Happy Birthday to Ya” helped to declare Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday. Along with being a recording pianist and vocalist, Stevie Wonder was also a civil rights activist. When there was an idea of making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday. Stevie Wonder’s anthem “Happy Birthday to Ya” made this idea come to life.

You know it doesn't make much sense There ought to be a law against Anyone who takes offense
At a day in your celebration

Cause we all know in our minds That there ought to be a time
That we can set aside
To show just how much we love you And I'm sure you would agree

It couldn't fit more perfectly
Than to have a world party on the day you came to be

Happy birthday to you Happy birthday to you Happy birthday

[Verse 2]
I just never understood
How a man who died for good Could not have a day that would

Be set aside for his recognition Because it should never be Just because some cannot see The dream as clear as he

That they should make it become an illusion And we all know everything
That he stood for time will bring
For in peace our hearts will sing

Thanks to Martin Luther King [Hook]

Why has there never been a holiday Where peace is celebrated
All throughout the world

[Verse 3]
The time is overdue
For people like me and you
Who know the way to truth
Is love and unity to all God's children
It should be a great event
And the whole day should be spent
In full remembrance
Of those who lived and died for the oneness of all people So let us all begin
We know that love can win
Let it out don't hold it in
Sing it loud as you can


We know the key to unify all people
Is in the dream that you had so long ago That lives in all of the hearts of people That believe in unity
We'll make the dream become a reality
I know we will
Because our hearts tell us so 

Credit: Wiki Commons


Place of birth: March 25, 1942 Place of birth: Memphis, Tennessee Date of death: August 16, 2018


Aretha Franklin, “Queen of Soul,” is known and loved as a very influential and impactful musician. Her life and musical career still live on today. Aretha Franklin is known for her anthems such as “Respect.” Her musical capabilities were obvious as she became a famous musician and civil rights activist. The style of music that she created blended categories of soul, pop, gospel, and blues. She was famous as singer and a pianist. She was also well known as an actress. Aretha Franklin was in movies such as Dr. Dolittle and Blues Brothers 2000. She was also considered the first lady of soul. Aretha Franklin’s legacy still lives on today and she will also be remembered for her work as a civil rights activist. The world has recently dealt with the tragic loss of Aretha Franklin. In 2018 Aretha Franklin tragically passed away. Her amazing career will always be remembered for her incredible singing and acting abilities. Her “Respect” anthem is still remembered as one of the most famous songs ever recorded for the incredible message that it conveys. Overall, Aretha Franklin’s death was very tragic and sad, but she will be remembered as an amazing person and talented musician/actress.

What you want Baby, I got it
What you need
Do you know I got it? All I'm askin'

Is for a little respect when you get home (just a little bit) Hey baby (just a little bit) when you get home
(Just a little bit) mister (just a little bit)
I ain't gonna do you wrong while you're gone

Ain't gonna do you wrong 'cause I don't wanna
All I'm askin'
Is for a little respect when you come home (just a little bit) Baby (just a little bit) when you get home (just a little bit) Yeah (just a little bit)
I'm about to give you all of my money
And all I'm askin' in return, honey
Is to give me my propers
When you get home (just a, just a, just a, just a)
Yeah, baby (just a, just a, just a, just a)
When you get home (just a little bit)
Yeah (just a little bit)
Sweeter than honey
And guess what?
So is my money
All I want you to do for me
Is give it to me when you get home (re, re, re, re)
Yeah baby (re, re, re, re)
Whip it to me (respect, just a little bit)
When you get home, now (just a little bit) 


Aretha Franklin
Credit: Saint George Thompson


Date of birth: April 2, 1939 Place of birth: Washington, D.C. Date of death: April 1, 1984 

Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” has an overarching theme of positivity. This song is very meaningful because this song talks about how important it is to choose love over hatred. This song also has lyrics about how love and positivity is stronger than the forces of hatred and war. This song has deep and meaningful lyrics. The overarching theme of this song is that love is the only thing that matters. This song’s musical tones also has strong elements of loveliness. The instrumentals in this song are known to make people happy and it is a light hearted and a relaxing song. This a

genre bending song that mixes multiple genres together to create an original and meaningful lyrical exploration.

Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today, eheh
Father, father
We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today, oh oh oh Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what's going on
What's going on
Yeah, what's going on
Ah, what's going on
In the mean time
Right on, baby
Right on brother
Right on babe
Mother, mother, everybody thinks we're wrong Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply 'cause our hair is long
Oh, you know we've got to find a way


To bring some understanding here today Oh oh oh
Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality

C'mon talk to me
So you can see
What's going on
Yeah, what's going on
Tell me what's going on
I'll tell you what's going on, ooh ooo ooo ooo Right on baby

Right on baby 

Marvin Gaye
Credit: Saint George Thompson

Organizer created on 1/30/2019 1:29:43 PM by

Last edited 3/15/2019 11:08:52 PM by Anthony Pouw