Civil Rights

Freedom Song Gathering
Mississippi, early 1960s
Photographer: Ken Thompson

The Civil Rights Movement has been described as the greatest singing movement this country has experienced. The songs that grew out of campaigns across the South in the early 1960s built on the rich culture of African American communities, particularly the black church. There were songs to fit every mood from sorrow to joy, from determination to irony and humor.

We were fortunate to live in the South during those years and to be based at the Highlander Center, one of the gathering places for civil rights activists to share information and to strategize.

Singing had always been an important part of Highlander workshops.

Rosa Parks attended a Highlander workshop in 1955, invited by staff member Septima Clark. This was shortly before her historic bus ride in Montgomery.

She said later, meeting black and white southerners wanting to build a democratic South, provided the first glimmer she had seen for the possibility of change.

Guy came to Highlander as a volunteer songleader and musician in 1959.


Septima Clark and Rosa Parks
Highlander School, 1955
Photographer: Highlander Archive

Guy Carawan Leading Songs
Founding Meeting of SNCC, 1960
At right: Marion Barry
Photographer: Carawan Archive

Singing labor and freedom songs had been important at the school since its earliest days.

"We Shall Overcome" had been a kind of theme song there since striking tobacco workers brought it to a workshop in 1947, teaching it to Zilphia Horton, Highlander's inspirational cultural director.

Invited to the founding meeting of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960, Guy was able to pass that song on to the Civil Rights Movement.

The 200 participants carried it back to dozens of southern communities.

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