The Songs of the Civil Rights Movement Were the Secret Weapons for Justice

Mahalia Jackson (center) with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (right) and an unidentified man, 1960. PHOTO CREDIT: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Paul & Claire Blumenfeld

By: Hazel Trice Edney

( – America was approaching the height of the civil rights movement as the news of the upcoming 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom spread across the nation. Hundreds of thousands of people prepared to emerge on the Nation’s capital transported by cars, buses, trains, and planes.

When they arrived, they were inspired by speech after speech, of course the ultimate and most lasting in historicity being Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” Despite the glorious message of that soaring oration, that was not all that marchers remember.

As much as any message that stirred the crowd and brought them to tears that day was “I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned,” a slave lamentation first recorded as a Negro spiritual in the early 20th Century. Sang that day by the reputed, “Queen of Gospel Music,” Mahalia Jackson, upon special request from Dr. King, she rendered the song slowly and prayerfully in her deep, rich contralto just before he spoke.

Recognizing the power of her voice, which had prepared the audience for his, Dr. King wrote to her five months later, “When I got up to speak, I was already happy. I couldn’t help preaching. Millions of people all over this country have said it was my greatest hour. I do not know, but if it was, you, more than any single person helped to make it so,” he wrote, according to the King Institute at Stanford University.

A. Peter Bailey, now an 86-year-old former associate editor of Ebony magazine, was there. He was then a 25-year-old follower of Malcolm X living in Harlem. He’d heard about the importance of the march from the Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, who had preached about it from his pulpit at the historic Canaan Baptist Church. Incidentally, Dr. Walker later authored the book, “Somebody’s Calling My name”: Black Sacred Music and Social Change,” which explores how Black people expressed themselves through music from enslavement to Jim Crow.

Mr. Bailey, who took a bus chartered from Canaan to the march, recently remembered that day in an interview with the Trice Edney News Wire. Bailey recalled, from Marian Anderson’s “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” to Mahalia Jackson’s “How I Got Ova”, which she’d sang earlier, he was actually more touched by the words of the songs than he was by the speeches.

“When we were together with literally thousands of Black folks and they started singing those songs, you were moved. You felt them,” Bailey said. “When I heard those songs the way they were singing them, with such fervor, I realized they were unifying songs. They were historical. They took us back to our ancestors because that’s where they’d come from. Our ancestors had used those songs during times when things were worse than they were then. And those songs had helped them to build unity, which is a key element in any successful movement.”

Perhaps no moment illustrated the importance of the music of the civil rights movement more than on March 15, 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson invoked the words of what is now known as America’s civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome”, which was also sang at the March on Washington and often at civil rights rallies and protests.

During a televised speech in response to the vicious “Bloody Sunday” attack by Alabama State Police on voting rights marchers on the Edmond Pettis Bridge on March 7, 1965, Johnson summed up his sentiments: “It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

Five months later on August 4, 1965, the U. S. Senate passed the Voting Rights Act. On August 6, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

This article/op-ed, the second in a four-part series, has been powered by AARP in celebration of Black Music Month.

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