Historian Reiland Rabaka wrote in “Civil Rights Music: The Soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement” that “singing marchers of the civil rights movement did not merely inspire each other, but they also influenced and seemed to stir something deep within the more noted leaders of the movement.” And whether facing police dogs, fire hoses, or white mob violence, the songs of protesters steeled their resolves and quieted their fears. The secular and sacred converged, mingled with their faith, and floated across segregated spaces and down dirt roads, like cadence. Onlookers heard them, long before they saw them. Eventually, their spirit-fueled protests messages would blare from radio stations and turntables across the nation.
There are thousands of these songs that still promote civil and human rights or encourage personal and social improvement – but these are the eight that we believe have stood the test of time. Be sure to check our social media posts to add your own favorites to this list:
Nina Simone, “I Wish Knew Now it Would Feel to Be Free” (1967)
One of the most symbolic anthems of the civil rights movement and the internal struggles of marginalized people across the globe. Simone imagines what it would be like to live in a world without racism and segregation.
Stevie Wonder, “Higher Ground” (1973)
“Higher Ground” is a soul song with a bit of funk measured in and written by the incomparable Stevie Wonder. It first appeared on his 1973 album “Innervisions” and reached Number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on the U.S. Hot R&B Singles chart.
Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions, “People Get Ready” (1964)
Music critic Stanley Crouch wrote that “People Get Ready” was Mayfield’s very powerful and creative reaction to the March on Washington. “By saying ‘There’s a train a-coming, get ready’ that was like saying, OK, so regardless of what happens, get yourself together for this because you are going to get a chance. Your chance is coming.”
Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964)
The Library of Congress called “A Change is Gonna Come” a soulful ode to the struggles, yet prevailing hopes, of a Black citizen living under the oppression of Jim Crow laws in the segregated South. Haunting in its lyrics, and chilling in Cooke’s delivery, the song continues to inspire activists to fight on.
Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” (1971)
Originally inspired by a police brutality incident witnessed by Renaldo “Obie” Benson, the song was composed by Benson, Al Cleveland and Marvin Gaye. The song topped the Hot Soul Singles chart for five weeks and crossed over to number two on the Billboard Hot 100. It sold over two million copies, becoming Gaye’s second-most successful Motown song to date.
The Staple Singers, “Respect Yourself” (1971)
The Staple Singers easily claim top billing in the ranks of social justice leaders with songs that inspired the civil rights movement. In fact, they wrote and performed much of the movement’s soundtrack. “Respect Yourself” focuses on both community and social issues we can fix by changing our attitudes with lyrics like, “If you’re walking around thinking that the world owes you something because you’re here; You’re going out the world backwards like you did when you first come here.”
Michael Jackson, “Man in the Mirror” (1988)
Written by Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard, the song declares that the way to ”make the world a better place” is to ”take a look at yourself and then make that change.” The call to look inward first makes its lyrics pivotal in encouraging personal and social uplift.
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, “Wake Up Everybody” (1975)
“Wake Up Everybody” is a classic R&B song written by John Whitehead, Gene McFadden and Victor Carstarphen. The song spent two weeks at number one on the Hot Soul Singles chart in early 1976. It also enjoyed success on the pop charts, peaking at number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.