A New Era of Civil Rights Music

“Glory” (From the Motion Picture Selma) Oscar Performance. Perf. John Legend and Common. Academy Awards, 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

Since the time of Martin Luther King Jr., the people of the United States have made tremendous progress toward racial equality in our society. Segregation in public places has ended, protective laws have been passed, and many people have opened their minds and hearts to see beyond racial differences. Although this is true, that does not mean that racial tensions are nonexistent today. While divisive lines have been blurred over time, much of society still holds onto the hope that one day they will be erased altogether.

During the Civil Rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s, music played an immeasurably valuable role in guiding protesters and unifying them as they attempted to spread their message. Music allowed for voices to be heard peacefully and helped to inspire the afflicted to keep working towards a final goal of equality. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 granted many of the major rights sought after by protesters by ending Jim Crow laws and offering voting rights, new racial controversies have arisen in today’s changing world. This new wave of problems has brought about the birth of a new era of Civil Rights music that is rooted in the past but uniquely developing within a twenty-first century context.
The release of the movie Selma in 2014 brought about the rise of a new Civil Rights anthem: “Glory”. Sung by John Legend and Common, this song originates from a movie reliving the Civil Rights events of the 1960s but does not shy away from comparing past struggles with the racial tensions being felt today. Lines such as “That’s why Rosa sat on the bus/That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up” attempt to parallel the struggles of a Civil Rights icon to a present-day race-related crisis. Other lines such as “No one can win the war individually/It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy” present listeners with a call to action, indicating that each person has a social responsibility to join the cause and work towards complete equality. Modern-day protest songs have been increasingly emerging in response to events concerning police brutality and white social dominance. This new civil rights movement “demand[s] an end to institutionalized racism,” and the music emerging is primarily hip-hop, as can be seen in parts of “Glory”, because of its nature as an “artistic form whose roots are highly political” (Tillet)
In their Academy Awards “Glory” performance, John Legend and Common led a group of African-Americans through a recreation of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, reminding audiences of the power of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, and allowing that influential reminder to connect to the racial conflicts still present today. In his acceptance speech for Best Original Song, Legend reminds viewers that the essence of Selma continues today by using the example that there are “more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.” Legend then goes on to insinuate that in unjust cases such as these, he hopes “Glory” will be used in modern-day marches and protests by expressing “When [you] are marching with our song, we want to tell you that we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on. Even though “Glory” is based on events that happened over fifty years ago, it takes on a new persona in the context of today’s Civil Rights struggles.

Rocker Tom Morello’s song “Marching on Ferguson” is an example of a direct-response form of protest music in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. As a more presentational song, the tone of this rock piece is capable of instilling anger and discontent in the minds of audiences as they listen. It is part of the “Artists for Ferguson” campaign that “will see musicians creating and donating songs to help support a legal fund for the arrested Ferguson protestors” (Kreps). This piece is not only meant to inspire through the music, but it also provides more practical assistance to the movement by raising funds to release imprisoned protestors. Another example of a song that has been released in direct-response to Ferguson includes J. Cole’s “Be Free”. Straightforward lines such as “ain’t no gun they make that can kill my soul” take a stand against racially motivated police brutality, which is believed by many to be the cause of Michael Brown’s death. As is common among artists responding to a crisis, Cole was vocal over social media about the incident and even visited Ferguson in person. This song is just one manifestation of the initial anger felt by many in response to the shooting. Released shortly after the Ferguson crisis began, both “Marching on Ferguson” and “Be Free” possess lyrics and melodies filled with anger, confusion, and calls to action against the aspects of society thought to be causing so much injustice in today’s world.

Photo by Suzi Pratt. Tom Morello performs for the ’15 Now’ Benefit Show at El Corazn. Digital image. Rolling Stone. N.p., 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Even though brand new civil rights music is continually emerging, the protest music of the past has not been forgotten in this new era. In particular, the song “We Shall Overcome” has become an anthem that bridges old and new civil rights protests. This piece developed from early twentieth century African American hymns, and it was soon picked up by young civil rights activists. This song truly came to the forefront of the Civil Rights movement when Pete Seeger, an American folk artist and activist, rewrote and recorded “We Shall Overcome” bringing it nationwide recognition. This song was sung in the 1950s and 1960s “on protest marches and in sit-ins, through clouds of tear gas and under rows of police batons” (“We Shall Overcome”). In this new era, “We Shall Overcome” is used in a largely participatory manner because of its well-known nature and symbolic connection to the past. In particular, this song has been used in multiple Ferguson protests and marches across the country in order to express solidarity with those in Missouri and promote unity among those searching for equality. Marchers are able to sing this piece in unison and instill in each others’ minds a hope for the future.

Silphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan, and Pete Seeger. “We Shall Overcome.” New York: Ludlow Music, Inc., 1963.



While there are differences in style, genre, and context between the music of the old and new Civil Rights eras, it is clear that the new wave of Civil Rights protest music has no intention of separating itself from its past. In fact, the messages found in twenty-first century music become more credible and are strengthened by the bonds they share with the Civil Rights music that came before them. As time passes, the music that continues to emerge has the potential to inspire generations of people to move to action and create positive change in a diverse, evolving world.


Cole, J. “Be Free”. 2014. MP3.

“Glory” (From the Motion Picture Selma (2014)) Oscar Performance. Perf. John Legend and Common.

Academy Awards, 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

“Glory”. Perf. John Legend and Common. VEVO. N.p., 12 Jan. 2015. Web. 01 Nov. 2015.

Kreps, Daniel. “Tom Morello Drops Protest Song ‘Marching on Ferguson'” Rolling Stone. N.p.,13 Oct. 2014. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.

Morello, Tom. “Marching on Ferguson”. 2014. MP3.

Tillet, Salamishah. “The Return of the Protest Song.” TIME. N.p., 18 Jan. 2015. Web. 1 Nov.2015.

“We Shall Overcome.” Library of Congress. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

Diana Boone