Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  knew that the Civil Rights movement needed a soundtrack. From Nina Simone to Bob Dylan to Billie Holiday, the music of the era incorporated jazz, folk, R&B and gospel. Here are some of the classic protest songs that will make you raise your fist and shout for freedom. Considering the disturbing times we are in today, some inspiring music is necessary.

10. Oh Freedom

“Oh Freedom” channeled slavery with powerful lyrics like, “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free.” This was an inspiring call for freedom. Listen Shirley Verrett powerful version below.

9. We Shall Not Be Moved

This song represented the determination of freedom fights in the face of government and social oppression, as the lyric says, “Like a tree that stands by the water, we shall not be moved.” The version below from the legendary Mavis Staples will certainly move you.

8. Go Tell It On The Mountain

The song uses Biblical analogies and the story of Moses freeing the Jews from Egypt as an analogy for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. The line, “Set my people free,” encapsulates everything that needs to be said in the fight for equality. Listen Peter Tosh’s version below.

7. Times They Are A Changin’

This song by Bob Dylan captured the spirit and essence of the change and turmoil that surrounded the Civil Rights era. Released in 1964, the song became an international hit, even charting at number nine on the British charts.

6. Lift Every Voice And Sing

The Negro National Anthem, written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900, took on a new meaning during the Civil Rights movement when its prophecy became truth. Check out Ray Charles’ powerful rendition below.

5. Strange Fruit

Billie Holiday‘s “Strange Fruit” captured the ugliness of lynchings in the South. Written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, who was of Jewish and Russian descent, in 1934, Billie Holiday recorded the it as a song in 1939. The recording sold one million copies, which is her biggest-selling single. The song has lasted for decades and was definitely an anthem during the the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Watch Billie sing the song below.

4. People Get Ready

This Curtis Mayfield song was released in 1965 and captured the optimism and excitement of the Civil Rights era. The song is still relevant and powerful today.

3. Alabama

Jazz musician John Coltrane did not need lyrics to highlight the injustice, violence and oppression that African Americans were facing in Alabama. He wrote the 1963 song after hearing about the four girls who were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham. Watch the brilliance below.

2. A Change Is Gonna Come

Sam Cooke’s 1963 song illuminated the struggle and hope for change during the Civil Rights era. According to Wikipedia, “The song was inspired by various personal events in Cooke’s life, most prominently an event in which he and his entourage were turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana.”

1. Mississippi Goddam

Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” after the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, who was assassinated by a Klansman, and the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four black girls — both happened in 1963. The song is a live recording and Nina embodies the rage of the times. It is the ultimate protest song. Brace  yourself and watch Nina’s performance below.


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