Music of a Movement: 20 Socially Conscious Classics

In the pews, on the streets and in the halls of Washington, songs of freedom rang out loud and proud during the civil rights era. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the seminal year that changed it all — 1963 — ESSENCE.com takes a look back at the 20 socially conscious songs, from radio pop hits to folk protest tunes, that forever changed our outlook as a people. 

Sam Cooke: “A Change Is Gonna Come”

"A Change Is Gonna Come" was released in 1964, around the time of Cooke's death, and it has lived on through some of nation's most historic moments. The song is said to have been played at the funeral of Malcolm X, at Rosa Parks' house after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and at the 2008 inauguration of President Barack Obama. 

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Marvin Gaye: "What's Going On?"

A former Motown heartthrob, Gaye took a turn for the political when he released "What's Going On?" in 1971. Continuing on the themes of the civil rights movement, Gaye's anthem addressed a generation's growing skepticism of the Vietnam War, and a desire to do away with social inequalities in the United States.

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Billie Holiday: "Strange Fruit"

Holiday released her rendition of "Strange Fruit" in 1939, 25 years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led his famous March on Washington. Celebrated as one of the key protest songs of the time, "Strange Fruit" tells the haunting story of Black men being lynched in the American South.

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James Brown: "Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”

"Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” became a revolutionary statement in 1968. During the height of the civil rights movement, Brown's lyrics gave the Black community a new assertiveness and confidence in our cultural identity. 

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Nina Simone: "I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)"

Simone released this civil rights anthem in 1967. The lyrics resonated deep with many Americans because it explored themes of equality and a wish to live free in America with dignity.

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The Impressions: "People Get Ready"

"People Get Ready" made just as much of an impact on the civil rights movement as it did on the music charts. The song was written the year after the 1963 March on Washington, and is known for crossing racial and religious lines to capture the spirit of the historic march. 

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Aretha Franklin: "Young, Gifted and Black"

As the daughter of one of Detroit's most prominent pastors, Aretha Franklin had a passion for the Black freedom movement and often lent her voice to music that uplifted and motivated her community. One of her most popular songs during the civil rights movement was her cover of Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted and Black," which went on to became a top 10 R&B hit and a civil rights anthem.

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Mahalia Jackson: "We Shall Overcome"

"We Shall Overcome" is known as the unofficial civil rights anthem. After Rev. Martin Luther King deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech during the 1963 March on Washington, the crowd of 250,000 sang "We Shall Overcome." Although the song has been performed by numerous artists, Mahalia Jackson's version is most closely associated with the movement because she worked closely with Dr. King. In his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait, King wrote that civil rights activists "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.'"

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Otis Redding: "Respect"

Before Aretha Franklin sang R-E-S-P-E-C-T, singer and songwriter Otis Redding wrote the title and lyrics to "Respect" as a plea for social change. His 1965 version of the popular hit reflects one of the most constant demands of civil rights era.  

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Donny Hathaway: "Someday We'll All Be Free"

Hathaway's 1973 song "Someday We'll All Be Free" spoke to the heart of Black Americans and gave inspiration to all those who believed a future with "brighter days will soon be here."

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Joan Baez: "Birmingham Sunday"

Folk singer Joan Baez recorded "Birmingham Sunday" in 1964 as a tribute to the four young girls who lost their lives during the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. The lyrics chronicled the events and aftermath of the bombing. Spike Lee used the song as the opening of his 1997 documentary, 4 Little Girls.

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Bob Dylan: "The Times They Are a-Changin'"

This classic folk song brought themes from protest marches and civil rights rallies to the ears of Americans across the country. Dylan released the track in 1964 and described it as "a song with a purpose."

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O'Jays: "Give the People What They Want"

Most of the freedom songs released during the 1960s were predominantly made up of gospel music and spirituals. By the '70s, groups like the O'Jays showed that funky R&B tracks could also have an empowering message. "Give the People What They Want" was a dance record with lyrics that called for equality and truth.

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Gil Scott-Heron: "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"

In 1970 poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron gave voice to the growing Black Power movement in one of his most popular songs. "The revolution will be no re-run brothers; The revolution will be live," he said on this hip-hop precursor, warning African-Americans of the dangers of relying on mass media and culture.

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The Temptations: "Message from a Black Man"

Released in 1969, in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination, "Message from a Black Man" gave a socially uplifting message that reflected the civil rights struggle of the time. The record was an instant radio classic.

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Sly and the Family Stone: "Everyday People"

Sly and the Family Stone wanted to spread their message of peace and racial equality in this 1968 classic. As one of the first integrated bands in music, the group certainly practiced what they preached. "I am no better and neither are you/ We're all the same whatever we do," sang lead singer Sly Stone.

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Nina Simone: "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)"

Nina Simone's bass player Gene Taylor penned this classic tribute to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a few days after his assassination in 1968. "What's gonna happen now?/ In all of our cities?" sang a tearful Simone when she performed the song for the first time at the Westbury Music Festival on Long Island, New York.

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The Staple Singers: "Respect Yourself"

Though released in 1971, a few years after the peak of the civil rights era, "Respect Yourself" adhered to the movement's themes of self-respect and Black empowerment.

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Sweet Honey in the Rock: "I Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round"

Sang by Freedom Riders, "I Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round" became a popular song of protest and determination. Here it is sung by female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock.

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Mavis Staples: "Eyes on the Prize"

One of the more influential folk songs of the era, "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" kept many in the movement focused on the bigger picture by urging them to hold on and keep their "eyes on the prize." Here it is sung by Mavis Staples.

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