The Lyrical Vigilantes of the Civil Rights Movement

“There is no noise as powerful as the sound of the marching feet of a determined people.” A strong notion from the key figure, Martin Luther King, that echoed throughout the Civil Rights Movement and continues to hold influence today. However, these footsteps were not the only thing to make a noise and leave footprints on the history of time.

Song was one thing that the fighters of the movement could not be stripped of; using music as powerful ammunition to fuel one of their most compelling weapons – the voice of the people. Whether it be in a sit-in in North Carolina, a freedom ride through Alabama or even the March on Washington; the hymns of these millions in the minority laid down a mantra of hope throughout the USA. Music provided not only an escape from an environment overflowing with constant fear and hatred, but sustained the foundations of the soul and solidarity of the African Americans that fused the movement.

Artists such as Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holliday, Sam Cooke, John Coltrane, and many more are all of huge importance of the time. Using their lyrics to protest against the political topics that were originally almost a taboo in the media, further addressing how immune people had become to witnessing the racial discrimination that had become a part of daily life. These people were not merely musicians, they were the heroes of their time. Their melodies provided a cradle of comfort and harmony to the millions of who were mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted by the fight for freedom. These lyrical vigilantes reminded the victims of hate that they were not alone.

“These people were not merely musicians, they were the heroes of their time”

People like Nina Simone utilized her level of fame as a platform to unite the masses, projecting her own voice to symbolize the cries of those who could not be heard by national and international audiences, further educating the people globally of the inequalities that exist.

Events during the movement continued to penetrate all genres, from blues, gospel, folk, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and soul; creating lyrics that pushed boundaries like never before. From soulful gospel hymns like Sam Cooke’s, A Change is Gonna Come, softly radiating words of hope such as:

“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”

To songs that narrated the barbarity of society, such as Billy Holliday’s, Strange Fruit, reciting:

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees”

With the poetic honesty exercised in the lyrics along with the scale and scope these lyrics were heard, either first hand via public protests or through the media; there is no denying how important the role of music had in transforming the silenced minority into a community with a voice.

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