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20 CHAPTER ONE Freedom Singers of the Civil Rights Movement: Delivering a Message on the Front Lines The civil rights movement achieved its greatest triumphs by bringing to the fore issues of human and constitutional rights, morality, power relations, race, and culture, and giving these abstract concepts concrete shape in the hearts and minds of the American public. Movement activists accomplished this through a series of direct action nonviolent protests designed to call attention to the injustices of southern segregationist society. Many of the most celebrated direct action campaigns in the movement, from the Montgomery bus boycott to the lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, involved activists’ efforts to desegregate public accommodations. Thus the transformation of public space represented one of the movement’s most visible and central concerns, and these campaigns spawned a body of freedom songs that became integral to movement strategy. The activists who sang these songs mobilized music as part of the daily struggle waged in the public spaces of the South. The term “freedom singer” applied to anyone who sang songs as part of the civil rights movement. Local campaigns also generated several freedom-singing ensembles that formed to lend their vocal capacities to the struggle. These included the Montgomery Gospel Trio, the Nashville Quartet, the CORE Freedom Singers, the Alabama Christian Movement Choir, and the SNCC Freedom Singers.1 In this chapter I focus primarily on the activities of the larger, more general body of freedom singers, highlighting at the end the SNCC Freedom Singers, who, apart Freedom Singers of the Civil Rights Movement 21 from television, did the most to spread the movement’s music outside the South. The evolution of the freedom singers’ use of music—first overcoming a reluctance to singing in public spaces, then using singing to demonstrate courage and resolve to white authorities, and reworking lyrics to fit different situations of social contestation—demonstrates that they possessed a selfconscious awareness of the performative aspects of public singing and a concern for its effects on various audiences that links them to more overtly theatrical groups such as the Living Theatre, the Diggers, the Art Workers Coalition, and the Guerrilla Art Action Group. Later, after freedom singing was well established as an essential tactic within the movement and as a central part of movement culture, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sponsored a formal group, the SNCC Freedom Singers, to travel outside the South and perform in concert halls to publicize the cause. With the development of this handpicked group of excellent singing voices who comprised the SNCC Freedom Singers, the performances of the larger, anonymous legions of freedom singers in the South appeared in more conventional ways and in more traditional venues. Freedom singers sought primarily to advance the integrationist and egalitarian goals of the early civil rights movement. Despite the considerable recognition they received for their music, artistic concerns remained secondary to their roles as activists in a mass democratic movement. Singing, therefore, was important as a tactic, an aspect of movement culture rather than an expression of art for art’s sake. Though this difference separated freedom singers from, for instance, the Living Theatre, for whom artistic concerns were always salient , it is less obvious in relation to the Diggers, the Art Workers Coalition, and the Guerrilla Art Action Group, whose expressions were inseparable from the social, political, and cultural upheavals of the sixties. Though it was not inevitable that freedom singing would play as prominent a role in the civil rights movement as it did, an African American tradition of using music for social protest dated back to the days of slavery. Before the Civil War, slaves used music to resist oppression, singing spirituals about the “freedom train” that served as coded language to help relay practical information for escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad. Runaway slaves also sang to bolster their hope and resolve in the face of danger; Frederick Douglass recounts that the spiritual “Run to Jesus” signified not just the solace of the “world of spirits” but “a speedy pilgrimage toward a free state” in the here and now. This use of music as a tool of resistance continued during the Jim Crow era as African American spirituals were sung to provide comfort in everyday 22 Chapter One life under racial oppression and in situations of social contestation. For instance , during the Atlanta riots of 1906, the black community sang a version of “Oh Freedom,” with its statement of defiance, “And...


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