Music as Motivation and Education by Greg Smolinski

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States was a time of intense activism, bravery, and a collective fight for justice and equality. Among the various tools and strategies employed by the activists, music emerged as a powerful force, serving as both a source of motivation and education for those involved in the movement. The profound impact of music during the Civil Rights era played a crucial role in inspiring, empowering, and educating individuals in their quest for freedom and equality.

Music as Motivation:

Music has an extraordinary ability to stir emotions, ignite passion, and mobilize individuals towards a common cause. During the Civil Rights movement, songs became the heartbeat of the struggle, acting as powerful motivational tools for activists and protestors. Artists like Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, and Mahalia Jackson used their music to create anthems that resonated deeply with the movement’s objectives and encouraged people to keep fighting. Iconic songs such as “We Shall Overcome,” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” became rallying cries, instilling hope, unity, and resilience in the hearts of those striving for change.

Music as Education:

Music also played a pivotal role in educating people about the Civil Rights movement, its goals, and the struggles faced by African Americans. Through their lyrics, artists communicated powerful messages that highlighted the injustices and inequalities experienced by Black communities. Songs like “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday and “Mississippi Goddam” by Nina Simone exposed the brutal reality of racism and served as musical testimonies that ignited empathy and consciousness among listeners. 

Freedom Songs:

One of the most significant contributions of music to the Civil Rights movement was the creation of freedom songs. These songs served as an integral part of protest marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations, providing a sense of solidarity and strength to participants. Freedom songs were often sung acapella, allowing the community to join in and create a powerful, unified voice against oppression. The repetitive and catchy melodies, combined with meaningful lyrics, helped to build camaraderie and determination among activists. They not only bolstered the morale of those on the front lines but also acted as tools for nonviolent resistance and defiance against the status quo. In Selma, Joanne Bland, a teenager who walked across the Edmund Pettus on Bloody Sunday in March, 1965 told us how singing freedom songs with her friends was one thing that attracted her to the Civil Rights Movement. It’s what got her in the door and she’s still active trying to make Selma a better place to live. 

The Power of Spirituals:

Spirituals, rooted in the African American experience, were a significant influence on the music of the Civil Rights movement. These songs originated from the era of slavery and were infused with hidden messages of hope, freedom, and resistance. Activists adapted spirituals to fit the contemporary struggle for civil rights, infusing them with new lyrics that expressed the desires and aspirations of the movement. Songs like “Wade in the Water” and “Eyes on the Prize” drew from the rich legacy of spirituals, connecting past and present struggles, and emphasizing the continuity of the fight for justice. At the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, I was haunted by the ghostly image of a young mother separated from her children singing, “Be my friend, Lord – I want Jesus to be my strength.” The emotion with which she sang broke my heart. I’m not sure of the song’s name, but the way she used the song to keep from falling completely apart will stay with me long after this trip. 

As this is the last blog post, I wanted to take the opportunity to give back to my fellow educators. To give another song that teachers can use to generate enthusiasm for this powerful, but difficult subject. An important song written in the early nineties about the Movement is “Wake Up” by Rage Against the Machine. 


It has the type of energy that makes you want change the world. “Wake Up” mentions many of the historical figures on both sides in the 1960s. If you’re going to use the song, may I suggest the cover version by the group Brass Against. The lyrics are clearer and it features lots of saxophones, trumpets, and trombones to hook your band kids!


The end of the video (@ 5:05) is also an excellent alarm for children who don’t want to get out of bed 

Related Materials and Events

Scroll to Top