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A List of the Most Powerful Civil Rights Songs

Equal civil rights in America would have been pursued and strides would have been made without the participation of blues, gospel and folk singers and songwriters. But the presence of these artists and their remarkable contributions to the long struggle for equal civil rights in the U.S., plus the empowering effects of freedom singing, had a remarkable impact.

The songs on this list don"t even begin to capture the hundreds of tunes that have been written about civil rights in America (and around the world), and the struggle for equal civil rights is far from over. But if you"re looking to learn more about music during the height of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and "60s in America, this is a good primer for your journey. Some of these songs were adapted from old hymns. Others were originals. All of them have helped inspire millions.

When "We Shall Overcome" first came to the Highlander Folk School via the Food and Tobacco Workers Union in 1946, it was a spiritual titled "I"ll Be Alright Someday." The school"s cultural director, Zilphia Horton -- along with those workers -- adapted it to the struggles of the labor movement at the time and began using the new version -- "We Will Overcome" -- at every meeting. She taught it to Pete Seeger the next year. He changed the "will" to "shall" and took it around the world. It became considered the anthem of the civil rights movement when Guy Carawan brought the song to a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee rally in South Carolina. It"s since been sung around the world. 

"Oh Freedom" also has very deep roots in the African-American community; it was sung by slaves dreaming of a time when there would be an end to their bondage. On the morning before the Rev.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."s "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington in August 1963, Joan Baez started the day"s events with her rendition of this tune, and it quickly became an anthem of the movement. The refrain ("Before I"ll be a slave ...") also appeared in an earlier tune "No More Mourning."


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