People Get Ready

How Music Prepared the Way for the Civil Rights Movement

Civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (2R) and Stokely Carmichael (3R) singing together during voter registration march after originator James H. Meredith was shot.  Photo by Lynn Pelham/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

Civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (2R) and Stokely Carmichael (3R) singing together during voter registration march after originator James H. Meredith was shot. Photo by Lynn Pelham/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

Just out of college and living in Macon, I drove up to Atlanta one Saturday afternoon in search of a tune that sent goosebumps up and down my spine every time some deejay spun it.I finally found it at an Edgewood Avenue record parlor no bigger than my kitchen, in a cardboard box consigned to the floor and crammed with second-hand vinyl. The price tag on the album, which took the song’s namesake as its title, was four dollars.

There were three very young-looking, nattily-garbed black men on the album cover, all captured in free-flowing yet synchronized poses that brought to mind the doo-wop ballets performed on subway platforms in the 1950s. Each smooth face conveyed some sense of beatitude, the most blissful belonging to The Impressions’ Curtis Mayfield, the lead vocalist on a side one cut titled “People Get Ready.”

“People Get Ready,” released in 1965, is a tender, richly metaphorical civil rights anthem that never sounds maudlin or dated, no matter how many times, or in what context, you hear it. A gentle counterpoint to Mayfield’s pulsating, streetwise 1964 hit “Keep On Pushing,” the central image of “People Get Ready” is a train that picks up passengers “coast to coast ” on its way to the Promised Land. In a zephyr-like tenor, he conjures the sounds and solace of the freedom train: “All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming, don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.” The song is transporting, in every sense of the word.

“People Get Ready” was named one of the top 10 songs of all time by a panel of 20 influential industry composers and producers, and Rolling Stone magazine ranked it the 24th best, also declaring, “Black music as we hear it today wouldn’t exist without Curtis Mayfield.”

But the soul/funk titan, who spent the last two decades of his life in Atlanta, is best remembered for having brought civil rights themes to the mass Top 40 audience and for his unflinching musical honesty and unifying spirit when the Movement fragmented after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Music critic Stanley Crouch wrote, “… by saying ‘There’s a train a-coming, get ready’ that was like saying, okay, so regardless of what happens, get yourself together for this because you are going to get a chance. Your chance is coming.”

As the country ushers in its first African-American president, the stirring refrains of Mayfield and so many other who composed the Movement’s soundtrack still resonate in the American soul in ways that transcend simple nostalgia. Those music-makers harked back to “Negro spirituals” and church hymns; mined new meaning from the old “work songs” (the ones that overseers had permitted because of their motivational effect); ached out folk melodies worthy of literature; and voiced their dreams and demands in the ancient, wondrously malleable call-and-response tradition that traces its roots all the way back to sub-Saharan Africa. Music was the prime mover of hearts and minds—and feet.

Southern in origin, gospel-based in sound and uncanny in its visceral appeal to the emotions, the music of the movement “has reverberated ever since,” says David Margolick, author of Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights. “And for all the changes in American racial attitudes since those bleak days … they have never lost their power.”

In rising to the urgent needs of the moment, musicians created something timeless.

These pivotal tunes, as Peter Guralnick, author of the seminal Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, puts it, were “a product of a particular time and place,” a cultural phenomenon that “accompanied the Civil Rights Movement almost step by step.” Their success, he contends, was a direct reflection of “the giant strides that integration was making.”

It was, in many ways, very much a collaboration of the envisioned “beloved community,” participants say.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that ‘We Shall Overcome’ was originally popularized by a white woman,” says Newton Collier, who was a member of the “Morehouse crew” of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or SNCC, pronounced “snick”) and a horn player for Sam & Dave. “Some of those songs were church hymns written a hundred years earlier by white people, and you had Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan and others doing them, along with a host of black people drawing on slave songs and artists like Mayfield and Sam Cooke singing about change. I think the music was always a black/white thing, all the way around.”

Oh Freedom!

The repertoire that would most define the Movement, the “freedom songs,” had its epicenter in southwest Georgia, in Dougherty and Terrell counties, where Dr. King and his followers met one of their major setbacks. The voter registration drives and protests appeared to be largely thwarted by cagey sheriffs and a hostile court system. Local authorities made sure to avoid any headline-grabbing physical confrontations with protesters, while a U.S. District Court judge outrageously found that, when squadrons of police were dispatched to demonstrations, Albany’s white residents were “denied equal protection” by law enforcement. Dr. King, concluding that flashpoints in Alabama would kindle more attention, moved on.

However, the Freedom Singers had brought “This Little Light of Mine” into an otherwise dark time. The quartet—all around 19 or 20 years old at the time—was formed in 1962 by SNCC field secretary Cordell Reagon, who recruited Charles Neblett, and local talents Rutha Mae Harris and Bernice Johnson (who eventually would add “Reagon” to her name after marrying him).


The Freedom Singers formed in Albany in 1962. (L-R) Bernice Johnson, Charles Neblett, unidentified singer, Cordell Reagon and Rutha Mae Harris. Photo courtesy Albany Civil Rights Intstitute

The group cleverly modified familiar hymns, spirituals, and other tunes to reflect their political goals. They sang “Come Mr. Kennedy, take me out of misery” to a calypso beat, and in “Dogs,” they mused on the irony that the pets of blacks and whites could get along amicably enough. “This Little Light of Mine” and “Oh Freedom,” the cri de coeur of newly emancipated slaves, were their signatures, though.

When Pete Seeger witnessed the vocalists’ power during a visit to Albany, he remembered the role of music in the labor movement and suggested the group go on tour to raise awareness and funds for SNCC. (Bernice Johnson Reagon later named her daughter Toshi after Seeger’s wife.) For nine months in the early ’60s, the Freedom Singers traveled 50,000 miles through forty states in a Buick station wagon, performing at schools, rallies, and jails, and managing to upstage Mahalia Jackson at Carnegie Hall.

“Even if the quartet were not dealing in matters so urgent as the topical freedom songs of the integration movement, it would be outstanding for its singing,” raved The New York Times in a 1963 review. “The Freedom Singers are the ablest performing group to come out of what is perhaps the most spontaneous and widespread singing movement in the world today.”

The singers’ virtuosic fervor turned a rousing, old-timey church song—“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”—into civil rights lore. In the context of what was going on throughout the South, its lyrics needed no explanation:

Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around
Turn Me Around. Turn Me Around.
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around
Keep On Talking. Keep on Walking.
Walking To The Freedom Day

“They always dropped the ‘a’ in ‘around,’ so it sounded like they were saying nobody was going to turn them round,” recalls James Hicks, the first African-American war correspondent and a member of an audience that heard The Freedom Singers perform in Harlem. “It actually was a more vivid, punishing image, like one of Bull Connor’s men spinning some girl backwards by her shoulders.”

Neblett also revamped “O Mary Don’t You Weep” into the classic “If You Miss Me from the Back of the Bus.”

“The freedom songs are playing a vital role in our struggle,” Dr. King said. “These songs give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.”

Asked his favorite freedom song, Tom Houck, a civil rights worker and driver for Dr. King, launches into a growling version of “Oh Freedom” that illustrates the improvisational rewriting at work: “Oh, oh freedom, oh. Oh, oh freedom! Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round…turn me round… Oh Wallace you never can jail us all! Oh Wallace segregation’s bound to fall! Pick ’em up and lay ’em down, all the way to Selma town…”

Then he adds, “There are so many, many more. The music of the era was a real way to tear down the wall and win our battles.”

In addition to founding the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, Bernice Johnson Reagon went on to become a scholar and historian of the African-American song tradition, producing, among other documentary works, the Smithsonian Institution’s three-record album Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, Black American Freedom Songs. “If you cannot sing a congregational song at full power,” she is fond of saying,“you cannot organize.”

In an essay for Sojourners, she wrote, “The song is not a product. The song exists as way to get to the singing. And the singing is not a product. The singing exists to form the community. And there isn’t anything higher than that that I’ve ever experienced.”

Loud and Proud

Popular music also was keeping rhythmic pace with the times. If the peak period of soul music is defined as 1955 to 1970, it parallels the movement that many argue, it catalyzed, along with some hip-shaking help from rock ’n’ roll. Otis Redding and Percy Sledge were represented by Macon impresarios Phil and Alan Walden, whose agency booked 46 of the top soul acts of the early to mid-’60s.

Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” was the first Southern soul number to top the pop charts in 1965. An aching love ballad that had nothing to do with the injustices of segregation, the single would become “a significant integrating factor” because of its evident appeal to young people of both races, Guralnick asserts. And Redding’s composition “Respect” was covered by Aretha Franklin, and became a Billboard smash without the sugary glaze of the white-targeted Motown sound. Franklin, who calls herself “an honorary Atlantan” because her “mother’s people” were from there, stayed true to the Southern-rooted gospel of her father’s church, and belted the song as if from a mountaintop. Her uncompromising tone—a command, not a plea—put her cover on the civil rights playlist (and reportedly prompted Redding to say, with admiration, “That girl done stole my song.”)

The social conscience of James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul” from Augusta, also broke through his wrenching screams in landmark ways. In 1968, he was scheduled to perform in Boston on April 5, which turned out to be the night after Dr. King’s assassination. Other American cities were going up in flames. At the request of the city’s mayor, Brown urged his fans to stay at home and watch his show on public television. It was aired twice, and Boston was spared the riots that devastated other cities. “Don’t just react in a way that’s going to destroy your community,” he told listeners in a tour de force that became known as The Night James Brown Saved Boston—proving without a doubt that he was the hardest working man in show business.

Councilman Tom Atkins, James Brown and Mayor Kevin White at the Boston Garden in 1968.

Councilman Tom Atkins, James Brown and Mayor Kevin White at the Boston Garden in 1968.

A few months later, Brown released “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” declaring in a way that deemed resistance futile: “We won’t quit movin’ until we get what we deserve.” It relied on a call-and-response chorus of children, and the lyrics pay tribute to the old spiritual “I’ve Been ’Buked.” Muscular, defiant and pulse quickening, it became the funky anthem of Black Power.

Mayfield, too, adapted to the edgier consciousness in the 1970s with “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” “’Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey),” and the blockbuster “Super Fly” without losing his inimitable, gospel-based agape, his conviction that love is the ultimate Black Power. As in most forms of African-American music, the sacred and the secular are plaited together in an overlapping, ongoing dialogue throughout the music of the civil rights movement. “There’s nothing like hearing a spiritual without understanding that it’s a radical statement,” observes Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield

That harmonic convergence reaches its perfect pitch, I think, in “People Get Ready.” Mayfield has said he was inspired by both the March on Washington and by his grandmother Annabell, a storefront preacher, gospel singer and healer in Chicago where Mayfield grew up. The song extends the benediction of an altar call—“all you need is faith.” The “Jordan” destination is both a Biblical reference and Underground Railroad code for the Ohio River, beyond which lay freedom.

It is also a call to arms, but with the mandate of open, outstretched hands. The train is “picking up passengers from coast to coast”; moreover, in an assertion that seems radical in any age, “there’s room for all.”

In 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down after lighting equipment fell on him at an outdoor concert in New York. He said afterward that because of the public outpouring of sympathy, his faith was stronger than ever, that “I’m a great believer in the saying, ‘It might not come when you want it to, but it’s right on time.’” Before his death in Roswell, Ga., nine years later, he managed to record his final album, New World Order, lying on his back and insisting that “there’s still light in the world.”

For that reason, Mayfield’s train always will be right on time.



Martin Luther King Jr. And Family Playing Piano At Home
Caption:Civil Rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with his wife Coretta, daughter Yolanda, 5, and Martin Luther III, 3, sitting together as they play piano in their livingroom. (Photo by Donald Uhrbrock/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

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