Sing a New Song: Jews, Music, and the Civil Rights Movement
In the 1960s, American Jews made up a large percentage of those white Americans who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. Many of them were motivated by liberal American values, Jewish values, and a belief that they understood the African American experience. At rallies, sit-ins, and marches they stood shoulder to shoulder with African Americans, and they were strengthened by the same freedom songs. This Go & Learn guide uses the letter of a Jewish civil rights activist and several freedom songs to explore how this music, based in African American church music, was able to cross racial and religious boundaries and build community.
- For youth:
- For family/congregational education:
Overcoming Fear: One Purpose of Freedom Music
- For adults:
Music, Religion, and Community
Introduction: Jews and the American Civil Rights Movement
In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement became a powerful force for social change, bringing together a diverse alliance of African Americans and whites, young students and seasoned activists, liberals and radicals, northerners and southerners for the common cause of eradicating segregation and other forms of racism in America. Jews joined its ranks in disproportionate number, by some estimates representing more than 50% of white civil rights workers. These Jews were drawn to the cause of African American civil rights for a range of reasons including: belief that Judaism requires one to work for justice for all people; desire to achieve the ideals of American equality; identification with the "otherness" of African Americans; memory of the Holocaust and a resulting sense of obligation to prevent racist violence against another group; embarrassment (among young Jews, especially) about the middle-class suburban values of many mid-century American Jews and a desire to find meaningful community elsewhere.
To my brother,
…Last night I was a long time before sleeping, although I was extremely tired. Every shadow, every noise – the bark of a dog, the sound of a car – in my fear and exhaustion was turned into a terrorist's approach…
"We are not afraid. Oh Lord, deep in my heart, I do believe, We Shall Overcome Someday" and then I think I began to truly understand what the words meant. Anyone who comes down here and is not afraid I think must be crazy as well as dangerous to this project where security is quite important. But the type of fear that they mean when they, when we, sing "we are not afraid" is the type that immobilizes… The songs help to dissipate the fear…
Many young Jews were among those who went to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 as part of Freedom Summer, a project led by SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). SNCC focused on fighting segregation through mass action and local, community-based activity. The Freedom Summer project brought about 1,000 northern students – mostly white, mostly relatively affluent, more than one quarter Jewish – to Mississippi to register voters, help organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as an alternative to the state's all-white Democratic Party, and run Freedom Schools and community centers for local African American communities.
The point of bringing white students to Mississippi was, in part, to take strategic advantage of America's violent racism. The organizers guessed that violence against white northern college students would attract the attention of the government and the nation, whereas commonplace violence against African Americans did not. The federal government would then be forced to protect the civil rights workers and stand up to state authorities. Sadly, this guess was proven correct immediately, when three civil rights workers—James Chaney (21 years old), an African American from Mississippi, and Michael Schwerner (24) and Andrew Goodman (20), both Jews from New York—went missing on their first day in Mississippi in June while investigating the burning of a black church. The bodies of the three men—beaten, shot, and buried in a dam—were found six weeks later. (The search had also uncovered the bodies of seven black men whose disappearance had not garnered any national attention.)
This was not the only incidence of violence faced by the civil rights workers. Over the course of Freedom Summer, at least three other activists were murdered, and volunteers also experienced 1,000 arrests, 80 beatings, 35 shooting incidents, and 30 bombings of homes, churches, and schools. But the intensity of the experience also created a powerful sense of purpose and community, an embodiment of the ideal of the "beloved community" of blacks and whites working together for a common cause.
This communal spirit was heightened by certain practices such as the singing of "freedom songs"—traditional African American spirituals or folk songs about the struggle for freedom and redemption that took on new meaning in the cauldron of the civil rights struggle. The repetitious structure of these songs made them easy to learn, easy to sing as a group, and easy to add to; civil rights activists wrote new verses that mentioned specific people or events important to their experience. Civil rights meetings often began and ended with the singing of freedom songs, reminding activists of the importance (and even holiness) of the work they were doing. Joining voices in song also demonstrated the power of a group—together their voices could shake the walls of a meeting hall. Freedom songs also helped boost spirits and strengthen resolve in jail and during other stressful times; singing was used to counteract fear and help activists remain peaceful when faced with violence. When marchers passed policemen with dogs and angry mobs shouting insults, they would sing louder as if to say "We know you're there, but you can't stop us in our quest for freedom."
Heather Booth was one young Jewish activist who went south for Freedom Summer after her first semester of college. Influenced by a post-high school trip to Yad Vashem, she promised herself to work for justice. She arrived in Mississippi having already been involved with SNCC on campus, as well as with anti-war activism. In a letter she wrote to her brother from Ruleville, Mississippi, she describes the fear that she and the other civil rights workers lived with every day, and the need to overcome the fear so as not to be paralyzed by it. She reflects on the power of singing freedom songs to help dissipate that fear and to remind civil rights workers that their mission was a holy one. "Returning from Mississippi," Booth later reported, "I took with me the lesson that you need to stand up for justice and help others in need—a lesson that resonated deeply with my Jewish beliefs." She went on to help found the first campus women's movement organization and has devoted her life to activism on behalf of women and African Americans.
Though the years after Freedom Summer saw the fracturing of the interracial alliance within the Civil Rights Movement, freedom songs remain a powerful reminder of what a community of activists united by a cause can aspire to and accomplish.
Visit the online exhibition Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution to learn more about Heather Booth's other work as an activist.
For more resources about the role of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement, visit Living the Legacy: A Jewish Social Justice Education Project, which has 24 lesson plans exploring Jewish identity and activism in America.
- Read the text of Heather Booth's letter to her brother.
- "We Shall Overcome" View lyrics and listen to a brief audio clip of a Feb. 1964 field recording from Hattiesberg, MS (track 121).
- "This Little Light of Mine" View lyrics and listen to a brief audio clip of an Oct. 1963 field recording from Selma, AL (track 102).
- "We Shall Not Be Moved" View lyrics and listen to a brief audio clip of a March 1965 field recording from Selma, AL (track 105).
- "Kol Ha'olam Kulo" View lyrics and listen. (Various videos of this song can be found online.)
The Smithsonian Folkways website, which you can reach via the "listen" links, has full length mp3s of the three freedom songs available for $.99 each, as well as additional versions of each song. Free full length Real Player versions of "This Little Light of Mine" and "We Shall Not Be Moved" can be found using the "lyrics" links for those songs.
See additional resources on the music of the Civil Rights Movement.