It was in the 1950s that the United States of America began to pay the price for years of treating African Americans like second class citizens. Refusing to be segregated and denied a voice in the selection of their government any longer, African Americans began campaigns of protest and education in an attempt to be treated equally. It wasn't only the Southern States where segregation and other forms of discrimination were practised, but it was states like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi where they were most enshrined, either by law or custom, or both.
Therefore it was these states that became literally the main battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. People from all over North America congregated in the South to show their support for the movement by taking an active role in their protests. Sit-ins were staged by black people in whites-only dining facilities, bus seats in the front sections of municipal vehicles were occupied, voter registration drives were undertaken that ensured black people previously shut out from the polls were able to vote, and people marched in the thousands demanding equal rights. The battle they faced wasn't an easy one as they were routinely attacked and beaten by both the police and mobs, and there were deaths among both the white and black protesters.
Now as the churches were key in galvanizing the people in the South, it should come as no surprise that when the protesters turned to song in order to comfort themselves and keep up their spirits, their first thought was the spirituals that were sung in church. It was easy to identify with songs taken from the stories of Moses leading his people to freedom, and it was those songs that were first sung and even adapted to suit the needs of the movement. However, as the recently released DVD of the documentary Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement shows, spirituals weren't the first or only music that were part of the movement. It also shows how the music of the African American community grew to reflect the changing moods of the people as the needs have changed.
Narrated by Louis Gosset Jr., Let Freedom Sing traces the history of music protesting the situation of African Americans from Billie Holiday's performance of "Strange Fruit" with its graphic depiction of black lynching victims hanging from trees, to Public Enemy's songs about life in today's urban core. However, as befits its title, the majority of the movie's focus is on the relationship between the music and the quest for equality. Interviews with musicians and former freedom riders are interspersed with original footage of protests, helping to recreate the era for the viewer and provide first-hand accounts of what the music meant to those involved with these events.
As was mentioned earlier, spirituals were the backbone of the movement to begin with, but gradually songs from both outside the church and the black community became just as important to the people on the ground in getting the movement's message out to the world at large. Young white musicians like Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez were key in ensuring that young educated white audiences in the northern states at least were aware of the issues, if not inspiring them to take an active role in protesting. Perhaps the most famous song associated with the civil rights movement of the early 1960s was "We Shall Overcome" and there's a nice little bit with Pete Seeger, where he makes sure to stress that all he did was introduce the song to people, and they were responsible for its genesis into the powerful protest song it became.
While some of the conversations with the musicians are interesting enough, some of them bear a striking familiarity to ones that I've seen in other documentaries. The interviews that are most fascinating are those with individuals who had been active in the movement. Not only are they each articulate about their experiences, they are also able to tell us just what music has meant to them and how it helped them through difficult times while protesting. Music not only has the power to inspire crowds, as it did in one man's memories of spending the whole night in jail singing, it also could give individuals the strength to stand up to the abuse heaped upon them by the counter-demonstrators.
While there's no denying the veracity of the history presented in Let Freedom Ring, and on the whole the music is a decent cross-representation of the era as it related to the civil rights movement, there is a little too much emphasis on the music that had crossover appeal for white audiences in the 1970s. While there is acknowledgment of the rise of black power, that whole aspect of the history is skirted over aside from a brief speech given by Stokely Carmichael and some pictures of various Black Panther members like Angela Davis. Perhaps most annoying is that there's almost no mention of Malcolm X, any references to Huey Newton and his false arrest on manslaughter charges, or any of the various efforts made by the FBI to discredit not only the Panthers but even mainstream leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.
The other problem I have with the movie is although it refers to itself as being about music and the civil rights movement, in actual fact it's about music and the history of African Americans' struggle for equality. If you're going to use a title as inclusive as civil rights, you have to include all those groups who are striving for acceptance: Hispanics, gays and lesbians, Native Americans, women, illegal immigrants, and the disabled. While it's true that in the 1950s and 1960s the focus of civil rights activists was on the African American community, the latter part of the twentieth century saw other groups struggling for acceptance as well. While it's good that the movie includes events that happened beyond the borders of North America by talking about South Africa and Nelson Mandela, if they're calling this a movie about the civil rights movement, they should have been more inclusive.
While the movie Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement does a good job showing the connection between the fight for equal rights for African Americans and the popular music of the community, it's an incomplete and slightly misleading history as it leaves out references to key figures and events. Even if we accept its title at face value, that the civil rights movement was only concerned with African Americans, it still does an inadequate job of telling that history.