7 Beloved Songs That Inspired a Generation

Just in time for Black History Month.

(Nina Reyes / Shutterstock.com)

During Black History Month, it is important to look at the history of the Civil Rights movement. We need to remember the inspiring leadership and the people who risked everything to run the grassroots organizations in small southern towns and cities in the 1950s and 60s.

The people who marched in Selma, Alabama, sat at the lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, walked instead of riding the buses in Montgomery, Alabama, went door to door in Mississippi to register disenfranchised blacks to vote. They lived and died for freedom and justice.

But few things help us remember these mostly unsung heroes and heroines like the music of the movement. The songs sung during the meetings, the marches, the sit-ins, and the rides to the Jim Crow jails that Black Enterprise describes as "stirring musical accompaniments to the campaign for racial justice and equality."

The music came from African American spirituals, gospel, and the activist folk music that began with the labor movement. The musicians crossed racial lines along with the activists who understood the righteousness of the cause.

Here are some of the inspiring anthems and artists that helped define the movement:

Mahalia Jackson - "We Shall Overcome"

This gospel and protest song became the key anthem of the Civil Rights movement thanks to the rendition from New Orleans gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. This woman known as the "Queen of Gospel" powerful rendition of another civil rights anthem was performed just minutes before Martin Luther King Jr's I Have a Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington.

The song was first sung by protesting tobacco strikers in South Carolina and became a popular protest song. The song was performed by Guy Carawan who introduced it to civil rights workers and sung by folksinger Joan Baez during the March on Washington, but no rendition stirs the soul more than Jacksons.

Sam Cooke – "A Change is Gonna Come"

This song was recorded in 1964 by Sam Cooke, a singer who was known as the "King of Soul" and civil rights activist. Cooke said that the song was inspired by events in his life including a time when  he and his entourage were turned away from a whites only motel in Louisiana. The songs refrain tells it all: "It's been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come."

Mavis Staples – "We Shall Not Be Moved"

This anthem came from the black spiritual "I Shall Not Be Moved" that describes how the singer is like a tree planted by the waters shall not be moved due to their faith. A secular version "We Shall Not Be Moved became a protest song in the labor movement and an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

This moving version was recorded by Mavis Staples a rhythm and blues and gospel singer, actress and civil rights activist. She performed with her family, The Staple Singers and on her own as a solo act. Staples’ father was a close personal friend of Martin Luther King Jr's and the family Became the spiritual voices of the movement.

Nina Simone, "Mississippi Goddamn"

This versatile musician was a singer, songwriter and Civil Rights Activist. Her music spanned a myriad of musical genres including jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, pop, and classical. The first time she performed "Mississippi Goddam at Carnegie hall in New York City, she described this anthem as “a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.”

The song lyrics say, “Alabama’s gotten me so upset, Tennessee’s made me lose my rest,” describing two states that were home to a host of violent racist incidents, but when she gets to Mississippi, the only word that can adequately describe the events there is, "goddamn."

Marvin Gaye – "Abraham, Martin & John"

This singer, songwriter, and producer helped shape the sound of Motown in the 1960s. He is commonly known as the "Prince of Soul." His 1970 version of "Abraham, Martin & John" has become a legend. The song links the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy. When Gaye sings, " he freed a lot of people," it is in reference not just to Lincoln but also to King and the Civil Rights movement.

James Brown - “Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud”

James Brown was a singer, songwriter, record producer, dancer, and bandleader. Known as the godfather of soul, his recording of this 1968  anthem written by Brown’s bandleader Alfred Ellis celebrates black heritage like none other. The song addresses the prejudice against blacks in America and the need for empowerment, justice, and equal rights.

Bob Dylan and the 1960 Folk Legends – "The Times They Are a-Changin"

Folk musicians and activists Bob Dylan, Joan Baez ,Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Guy Carawan and the entire folk scene  of the 1960s were very involved in the Civil Rights Movement and lent their voices to the cause as well as their feet marching with Martin Luther King Jr.

Dylan wrote many protest songs that helped define the movement including "The Times They Are a-Changin", "Oxford Town" about the desegregation of the University of Mississippi and "The Death of Emmet Till" that describes the brutal murder in Mississippi of a teenage boy visiting from Chicago for supposedly making a pass at a white woman. The times really were about to change for the better.