Former Atlanta Mayor and U.N Ambassador Andrew Young believes that music played as important a role in advancing the Civil Rights Movement as landmark legislation, African-American churches and the footage that shocked the conscience of a nation. The “freedom songs” were more than just the sanctifying soundtrack of an epic struggle, he says. They imbued marchers with the “turn thy cheek” mindset that allowed them to respond to savagery with the vow, “We’re still going to love you.” And it got them out on the streets in the first place, knowing that the Movement melodies harkened back to slavery and had sustained their ancestors through the worst of times.
Young, 76, sees the music of black liberation as a centuries-long continuum that began in the fields of the Antebellum South and was then revived in the pews and the picket lines. As the Movement fanned out from Atlanta, Birmingham and Selma to the industrial cities of the North and Midwest, some of its anthems began to veer away from the messages of forgiveness, faith and redemption that had suffused the earlier spirituals. An impatient, harder-edged zeitgeist was emerging, Young notes, but at their core, these songs of emancipation still bore the genetic imprint of the black church.
For Black History Month, Young held forth on the subjects of “freedom songs,” the role of music in black consciousness and the social responsibilities of entertainers for Georgia Music.
Your quotation that “music did more for the movement than the courts or the churches” defies some of the pieties of the Civil Rights era. Can you elaborate on this notion?
Music was something that preceded all of it—the sit-ins, Brown [the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision desegregating the public schools], the role of the black church as the Movement’s epicenter—by hundreds of years. I believe music was an equal force as the others, but I don’t know that it was greater. It was certainly ahead of the churches and courts.
The slaves sang as they worked in the fields. In the ’50s and ’60s, musicians tended to adopt and modernize and update these work songs into what we call “freedom songs.” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is an example. It was a combination in the sense that it held out hope of liberation to the North and the fact that under any circumstances, they would all ultimately end up in a better place. A line from another song from slavery said ‘I’ll overcome some day.’ That’s the origin of “We Shall Overcome.” All of the original slave music spoke to the belief that there must be a God somewhere.
Some Movement historians say Dr. Martin Luther King’s opposition to the Vietnam War globalized the Movement and expanded its musical canon beyond U.S. borders while also bringing white folk singers into the fold. Is that what you saw happen?
From the beginning, the Movement was founded in an international context. Martin, as you know, was greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi as a student at Morehouse College. In 1953, he visited Ghana as it celebrated its independence. The Soweto uprising in South Africa [in which a black township rose up against apartheid laws] coincided with Birmingham. Martin’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” was the Movement’s D-Day…
You know it was Pete Seeger who first adapted “We Shall Overcome.” The Caribbean musicians were also very influenced by our freedom songs. When Bob Marley released “One Love,” in Jamaica, he did so as the theme song for the social justice movement and presidential campaign of Michael Manley. Workers for Solidarity in Poland sang “We Shall Overcome,” and a Chinese student in the Tiananmen Square uprising wore a shirt emblazoned with that declaration. So the discography is borderless.
If you had to pick one musician among the many who spread the Movement’s ideals through music, who would it be?
I’m a Curtis freak. Mayfield, that is. His stuff, particularly early on, was a contemporary expression of those old hymns. But he merged the sacred and the secular. “Amen” and “People Get Ready” were obviously deeply spiritual, but you had “Keep On Pushing,” which was a more tangible connection to what was happening in the streets. He was a child of the movement, in his teens or just out of his teens when he first started recording. After Curtis, Sam Cooke. Just listen to the refrain “it’s been a long time coming” in “Change Gonna Come.” That reverberated among many folks.
Can you offer a tangible example of how a Movement melody furthered the cause?
I don’t think we would ever have gotten the King holiday passed if Stevie Wonder had not dedicated his rendition of “Happy Birthday To You” to Martin.
In the years that followed Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, what was going on in American music that, in your mind, was so crucial?
At that time, schools in Little Rock and Dallas and other Southern cities were desegregating and white and black teenagers began to listen to the same songs. Sam Cooke and Ray Charles were integrating the charts. Soul music was evolving in a way that broadened its appeal.
Again, music was the pioneering agent. Not more important than anything else, just earlier in its impact. Martin said 11 a.m. on Sunday was the most segregated hour in America, and he was right because black people and white people didn’t worship together. Many of the laws on the books of those stages enforced segregation too. That said, the music was integrating the youth.
What insights did you gain through your participation in Walking with Guns, the documentary about gun violence featuring Grammy-winning Atlanta rapper T.I., who is making amends for his federal firearms offenses? What prompted you to get involved in the first place?
I wanted to know why the rap generation had become so alienated from the mainstream of black culture. I’ve realized it was much more our fault than theirs.
The welfare system, Aid To Families With Dependent Children, AFDC, destroyed the black family by its set of rules. A child couldn’t stay with grandparents and the family couldn’t have an unemployed male in the house. If he was employed, they lost the benefits. The unintended consequence was the creation of a generation of people who grew up without the love of grandparents and fathers. So they created their culture, and it’s very angry, hostile and bitter.
Walking With Guns was a great opportunity to understand this generation and how they got this way.