- Freedom Songs:Helping Black Activists, Black Residents, and White Volunteers Work Together in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, during the Summer of 1964
"Freedom songs" is the umbrella term for the diverse body of songs adapted or composed for the civil rights movement, particularly songs in most frequent use in that struggle during the early 1960s. Many of these songs remain familiar today among them "This Little Light of Mine," "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round" and, of course, "We Shall Overcome."1 Two activists—one white, one black—attest to the powerful roles freedom songs played. Veteran singer and activist Pete Seeger (2004) made the broad claim that the civil rights movement could not have succeeded without the songs. Cordell Reagon, organizer and song leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was more specific in an earlier interview with scholar Kerran Sanger (1995, 40): "The music is what held the Movement together."
Regional studies are emerging as a sound route to a more nuanced understanding of the remarkable political, demographic, and event-related complexities of civil rights history (Moye 2011). John Dittmer's Local People: [End Page 59] The Struggle of Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994), which earned the 1995 Bancroft Prize in American History, provided an excellent backdrop for my work in Hattiesburg and Patricia Michelle Boyett's Right to Revolt: The Crusade for Racial Justice in Mississippi's Central Piney Woods (2015) tightened Dittmer's geographical focus. Hattiesburg, located an hour's drive north of the Gulf of Mexico in Mississippi's Pine Belt, is the county seat of Forrest County, named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate cavalry hero and first Imperial Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Hattiesburg, the "major testing ground in the battle for suffrage" (Dittmer 1994, 184) in the most conservative state in the South (then and now), is as appropriate a destination for research as it was for the activities of Freedom Summer. It is the geographical focus for this study partly because I work there: it is impossible to spend years in this city without becoming aware of how important it was during the civil rights era. In Hattiesburg, music became a critical ingredient in activities ranging from mass meetings to courthouse picketings during Freedom Summer, 1964's dramatic voter registration drive. Singing helped unite SNCC activists and organizers; they were able to express their shared desire for change in song. Singing also defused, calmed, or facilitated emotionally powerful moments of negotiation, complaint, or confrontation, thereby rendering difficult and contentious encounters diplomatically successful, or at least less violent than expected. Singing freedom songs minimized the tensions that arose between populations who shared an urgent cause but who had dramatically different backgrounds. Black Movement organizers, many of them middle-class northerners, had to convince impoverished black southerners to transform long-repressed frustration and anger into carefully measured action. Liberal, young volunteers—most of them white and from progressive, affluent backgrounds—had to function in a culture which, while far from monolithic, was more traditional and more alien to them than they could have anticipated. Sharing the singing of freedom songs eased every task, including the most basic job of the activists—getting along with each other. These songs attenuated unsurprising but counterproductive friction between individuals of different races, different classes, and—through specific details of performance practice—different opinions about how to best express black culture through music.
Hattiesburg and 1964's Mississippi Summer Project
The Mississippi Summer Project, better known today as Freedom Summer, was born out of desperation. Leading up to the project, black activists were being assaulted and even killed with impunity. Organizers asked the question: what if upper-crust white students and white clergy entered [End Page 60] the picture? The national media might finally pay attention to southern racism and brutality which might result in some movement toward racial equality. After a spirited debate (which I will explore below), Movement leaders conceived a plan to involve these outsiders in a project seeking to register blacks to vote and to begin to rectify differences in how the races were educated in Mississippi. The plan was initially conceived and shaped in late 1963...