Creating community in the American Civil Rights Movement: singing spirituals and freedom songs
Boots, Cheryl Charline
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This thesis examines the crucial role of spirituals and freedom songs during the American Civil Rights movement from 1955-1968. Singing this music and speaking their lyrics affirmed African Americans' humanity, inspired hope for justice, and nurtured community development. When they sang, activists experienced "egalitarian resonance"-- spontaneous community among singers and listeners crossing race, age, gender, and class differences. These moments modeled the ideal American, multiracial community. In the absence of a 24/7 news cycle, freedom songs instantly provided a grassroots history of the movement. Both artistic expression and vocal protest, spirituals testified to the resilience of the human spirit. Created by African American slaves, spirituals expressed human psychological, emotional, and physical suffering. During twentieth-century segregation, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Howard Thurman wrote about spirituals and racial oppression. They understood spirituals expressed hope for justice despite despair. During the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted spirituals and freedom songs, linking past suffering with present persecution. Forming part of nonviolent protest, spirituals offered hope for an all-inclusive, "beloved community." Between 1955 and 1968, freedom songs chronicled events and persons, orally recording the movement as it happened. Protesters sang long-established spirituals and newly-created freedom songs composed while working to open public facilities and to expand the franchise to all persons. Singing together in mass meetings solidified the resolve of participants and community members. When the movement spread from a regional to national phenomenon, freedom songs began showing other music influences including blues, rock and roll, and folk rock.