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Behind The Beat

These Are The Songs Of The Civil Rights Movement

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Gene Herrick
/
AP Photo
With members of the Tennessee National Guard standing ready, thousands of people march in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, in Memphis, Tennessee on April 9, 1968.

Since it’s Black History Month, we’re going to take a look at some of the music from the Civil Rights Movement from the mid-‘50s to the early 1970s.

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s “We Shall Overcome” was the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

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"We Shall Overcome"

Starting in 1955, acts of non-violent protest and civil disobedience led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ensured voting rights for black people.

In the early days, much of the music coming out of the Civil Rights Movement had a very hopeful tone. Here are The Impressions from 1965 with “People Get Ready.”

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"People Get Ready"

Nevertheless, due to deteriorating urban conditions, a number of race riots occurred throughout the 1960s. Within hours of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, James Brown was on the radio, urging listeners not to express their anger by burning their neighborhoods.

Brown was one of the few black artists who had the authority to influence the black community, and he took his role seriously. Here he is in 1968 with “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The chorus is performed by about 30 kids from the neighborhoods of Compton and Watts.

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“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”

Another group whose music was a big part of the Civil Rights Movement was The Staple Singers. Like The Impressions, their music had a hopeful element, a positive message amidst the protest. Here’s The Staple Singers from 1971 with “Respect Yourself.”

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"Respect Yourself"

Also in 1971, Marvin Gaye put out a record that still stands as one of the most artistic expressions of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. It’s “What’s Going On.”

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