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The endless number of spirituals, iconic ballads, and power songs from the civil rights era to the modern-day left us with quite a challenge. Here, in chronological order, is our list of the greatest protest and civil rights songs in history.
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Perhaps the most widely known spiritual of its kind, “Swing Low” was inspired by the Biblical story of the Prophet Elijah being delivered to heaven in a chariot of fire. As with countless other spirituals, it was only natural for those who heard it to draw parallels to the experiences of slaves, and a resolute hope that a better life was on the horizon.
The song is credited to Wallace Willis, a slave who worked in the cotton fields of Oklahoma in the mid-1800s, and its global journey truly began when it was performed and first recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Often called the “Black National Anthem,” this 121-year-old hymn remains as vital as ever in the 21st century. It was first written as a poem by Johnson in 1900, and five years later, his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, set its painstaking words to a stirring melody. “Lift” is a message of resilience, reverence and courage, calling for voices to join together in the “harmonies of liberty,” and to “march on till victory is won.”
First published in 1901, the gospel music composition by the Reverend Charles Albert Tindley of Philadelphia crossed over from the church to protests, becoming a key anthem of the civil rights movement. “We Shall Overcome” was sung by over 50,000 attendees at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. It has been performed and re-written by numerous artists and remains a staple for political movements.
Billie Holiday, the legendary American jazz vocalist, was born on April 7, 1915, and died in 1959 at the age of 44.AP
“Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
The lynching of Black Americans remained horrifyingly common in the 1930s, when Abel Meeropol wrote this unflinching composition. “Fruit” was brought vividly to life by Billie Holiday in 1939, and has been covered and sampled by countless artists, including Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley and Kanye West.
American singer Mahalia Jackson sings at the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. On Aug. 28, 1963.Bob Parent, Getty Images
The 1951 hymn by Clara Ward made history when it was performed by the “Queen of Gospel” at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, in front of a crowd of 250,000.
Singer Sam Cooke performs at a concert in New York’s Copacabana night club in this undated photo. (AP Photo) ORG XMIT: APHS141 [Via MerlinFTP Drop]AP
In the last year of his life, Sam Cooke released his masterpiece — one he wrote after being turned away from a whites-only motel. Forty-four years later, it would be quoted by America’s first Black president. Moments after winning the 2008 election, Barack Obama told his supporters, “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, change has come to America.”
Jazz singer Nina Simone is shown in London on Dec. 5, 1968, photo. Simone’s deep, raspy, forceful voice made her a unique figure in jazz and later helped define the civil rights movement.ASSOCIATED PRESS