The Sound of Civil Rights

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 12660

Because music can move the body and emotions, it can move a movement of people dedicated to a cause. Learn about art born of struggle and suffering, and how it can propel a cause and document history!


Musical Arts, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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How can something as seemingly harmless and entertaining as music be used to fight for what is right?

Music may be entertaining, but it is never just entertainment.

Even music without words communicates ideas, beliefs, identities, and attitudes. Music is even more powerful in shaping the way people think about themselves and their societies when words are involved.

In American history, as in other times and places throughout the history of the world, music has played a role in politics and society. Songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “The Liberty Song” communicated the spirit of the revolutionaries in their fight against British rule and roused people to action. The Hutchinson Family Singers sang songs in the mid-1800s in protest of slavery and the mistreatment of African Americans. By the twentieth century, singers like Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie were using music in the struggle for the rights of American workers.

By the 1960s, it had become clear that the struggle for civil rights in the U.S. was far from complete. In many states, there were laws that prevented interracial marriage. Jim Crow laws in many states enforced a social system that kept black and white lives separate and kept African Americans at a significant disadvantage. Anti-black violence remained all too common.

Music played a significant role in promoting awareness of these critical civil rights issues and mobilized people to join the efforts to reform American society. Learn more about music in the Civil Rights movement. As you read the article, Music Played Key Role in US Civil Rights Movement, by Richard Paul, courtesy of The Voice of America, write down answers to the following questions:

  • How does the article describe race relations during this era?
  • How was music used as part of the struggle for civil rights?
  • What genres or types of music were involved?
  • What were three or four of the songs mentioned?

Collect your answers and share them with your parent or teacher. Then, discuss the following questions together:

  • What can music accomplish that lectures or articles about similar issues cannot?
  • What do you predict would be the most important themes in the music of the Civil Rights era?
  • What are some songs about civil rights, from previous eras or from today, that you already know?

It is often said that suffering and struggle produce the most powerful art. The music of the Civil Rights era remains some of the most potent music in the heritage of American arts.

In the Got It? section, listen to some of the great songs that provided the soundtrack to this important movement.

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