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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.

Overview

Enduring Understandings

  • American Jews made up a large percentage of those white Americans who participated in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Music has the power to unite people of diverse backgrounds.

Essential Questions

  • What motivated Jews to participate in the Civil Rights movement?
  • Who was Heather Tobis Booth and what role did she play in the Civil Rights movement?

Notes to Teacher

We have provided lyrics for each of the songs included in this lesson in the “Document Studies” section. We recommend using YouTube or iTunes to access audio recordings.

Introductory Essay(s)

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.

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.

Lesson Plans

Document Studies

Heather Booth's Letter to Her Brother

Heather Booth's Letter to Her Brother

Letter to Jon from Heather Tobis Booth

Ruleville

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. Some of the words in the songs do not hold real meaning on their own, others become rather monotonous—but when they are sung in unison, or sung silently by oneself, they take on new meaning beyond words or rhythm…There is almost a religious quality about some of these songs, having little to do with the usual concept of a god. It has to do with the miracle that youth has organized to fight hatred and ignorance. It has to do with the holiness of the dignity of man. The god that makes such miracles is the god I do believe in when we sing “God is on our side.” I know I am on that god’s side. And I do hope he is on ours.

Jon, please be considerate to Mom and Dad. The fear I just expressed, I am sure they feel much more intensely without the relief of being here to know exactly how things are. Please don’t go defending me or attacking them if they are critical of the Project…

They said over the phone, “Did you know how much it takes to make a child?” and I thought of how much it took to make a Herbert Lee (or many others whose names I do not know)…I thought of how much it took to be a Negro in Mississippi twelve months a year for a lifetime. How can such a thing as a life be weighed?…

With constant love,
Heather [Tobis Booth]

Details

Elizabeth Martínez, ed. Letters from Mississippi. (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002), 172-173.

We Shall Overcome

We Shall Overcome

Lyrics to We Shall Overcome

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, 
We shall overcome someday.

The Lord will see us through, The Lord will see us through,
The Lord will see us through someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

We're on to victory, We're on to victory,
We're on to victory someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We're on to victory someday.

We'll walk hand in hand, we'll walk hand in hand,
We'll walk hand in hand someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We'll walk hand in hand someday.

We are not afraid, we are not afraid,
We are not afraid today;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We are not afraid today.

The truth shall make us free, the truth shall make us free,
The truth shall make us free someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
The truth shall make us free someday.

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall live in peace someday.

Details

This Little Light of Mine

This Little Light of Mine

Lyrics to This Little Light of Mine

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
Let it shine, shine, shine,
let it shine!

Everywhere I go, I'm gonna let it shine.
Everywhere I go, I'm gonna let it shine.
Everywhere I go, I'm gonna let it shine.
Let it shine, shine, shine,
let it shine!

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
Let it shine, shine, shine,
let it shine!

All up in my house, I'm gonna let it shine.
All up in my house, I'm gonna let it shine.
All up in my house, I'm gonna let it shine.
Let it shine, shine, shine,
let it shine!

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
Let it shine, shine, shine,
let it shine!

Out there in the dark,
I'm gonna let it shine.
Out there in the dark,
I'm gonna let it shine.
Out there in the dark,
I'm gonna let it shine.
Let it shine, shine, shine,
let it shine!

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine.
Let it shine, shine, shine,
let it shine!

Let it shine, shine, shine,
let it shine!
Let it shine, shine, shine,
let it shine!

Details

We Shall Not Be Moved

We Shall Not Be Moved

Lyrics to We Shall Not Be Moved

We shall not, we shall not be moved
We shall not, we shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's standing by the water
We shall not be moved

We shall not, we shall not be moved
We shall not, we shall not be moved
The union is behind us,
We shall not be moved

We shall not, we shall not be moved
We shall not, we shall not be moved
We're fighting for our freedom,
We shall not be moved

We shall not, we shall not be moved
We shall not, we shall not be moved
We're fighting for our children,
We shall not be moved

We shall not, we shall not be moved
We shall not, we shall not be moved
We'll building a mighty union,
We shall not be moved

We shall not, we shall not be moved
We shall not, we shall not be moved
Black and white together,
We shall not be moved

We shall not, we shall not be moved
We shall not, we shall not be moved
Young and old together,
We shall not be moved

Details

Kol Ha'olam Kulo

Kol Ha'olam Kulo

Lyrics to "Kol Ha'olam Kulo"

כל העולם כלו

 

כל העולם כלו
גשר צר מאד
והעקר לא לפחד כלל

Kol Ha'Olam Kulo

Kol ha'olam kulo
Gesher tzar me'od
Veha'ikar lo lifached k'lal.

The whole world
Is a very narrow bridge
and the main thing is to have no fear at all

Details

Lyrics: Rabbi Nachman of Breslov; Tune: Rabbi Baruch Chait. Translation courtesy aish.com.

Heather Booth and Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964
Full image
Heather Booth playing guitar for Fannie Lou Hamer and others during the Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, 1964.
Courtesy of Wallace Roberts.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Sing a New Song: Jews, Music, and the Civil Rights Movement." (Viewed on September 27, 2016) <http://jwa.org/teach/golearn/apr10>.

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