The Music Behind a Movement: How Spirituals Shaped The Civil Rights Era

Written By: Mauranne Vernier

History of Negro Spirituals

  • Spirituals were born out of slavery. European colonies ushered slaves into Christianity, beginning in 1740. This period was called the Great Awakening. However, slaves expressed their Christianity differently and on their terms. Spirituals also stem from the “ring shout,” a circular shuffling dance, including chanting and handclapping. Ring shout was common among early plantation slaves
  • Negro Spirituals were sung at religious services like a church or plantation houses. They were also sung at home or in the fields. 


  • After slavery was abolished, many African Americans formed professional choirs like the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Tuskegee Institute Choir. They were able to travel the world and perform spirituals, folk, and gospel music through concerts. 

Songs of Freedom

  • White slave owners disapproved of the way slaves worshiped. Therefore, slaves had clandestine gatherings in places not designed for worship like fields, ravine, and living quarters. Spirituals served as a way to express the community’s new faith and its sorrows and hope.
  • Many spirituals had some double entendre. There would be hidden messages in songs. For example, “Go down, Moses,” was a song used by Harriet Tubman to identify herself to slaves who might want to flee north. 

The Power of The Tounge

  • Negro Spirituals played a vital role in inspiring and giving a voice to the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr explained, “sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that ‘We shall overcome, Black and white together, we shall overcome someday.”
  • During demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts, African Americans sang spirituals like “We shall Overcome,” “Wade in the Water,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” It gave them power and morale.
  • History repeats itself. Like how slaves used spirituals to hold on to their sanity, form community, and escape bondage. Black people in the 1950s did the same. Spirituals have been a significant piece in Black rebellion and activism and will continue to be for generations.


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