Music at the March on Washington

Music was a vital part of the Civil Rights Movement.  Whereas the music of the Holocaust prisoners stayed mostly with the confines of the camp walls and was an internal method of coping with their surroundings and maintaining their humanity, the music of the civil rights movement was this and more: a universal language that communicated emotions and frustrations, transcended words, spoke directly to the heart, affirmed the commonality of the human spirit, and united people of all races and religions.

At the March on Washington, musical performances were interspersed between the speeches.  These were some of the artists presented:

Mahalia Jackson: “How I Got Over”

Bob Dylan: “When the Ship Comes In” (with Baez)

Freedom Singers “We Shall Overcome” with Baez; Dylan; Peter, Paul and Mary, and Theodore Bikel.

 Unknown Artist (Marian Anderson): “Deep River”

Bob Dylan: “Only A Pawn In Their Game”

Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.”

Various Artists – Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs

Joan Baez: “We Shall Overcome”

Odetta: “Oh Freedom “

Mahalia Jackson

A compilation of all the available video of musical performances from the March on Washington.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his relationship with Music

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was surrounded by music from birth; as a child he played the violin and his mother gave him piano lessons, (later in life he would sit at the piano and play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 “Moonlight” claiming it was the only piece he remembered how to play.)[1]  His wife, Coretta Scott King, was an opera singer, violin and trumpet player; they met when she was a student at the New England Conservatory.

As a 10 year old, Dr. King heard Marian Anderson, a black opera singer, on the radio. Ms. Anderson had been banned from singing at Constitution Hall in Washington DC because of her race.  In protest, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped organize a performance by Ms. Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday for an audience of 75,000 people and a live radio broadcast. This concert had a profound effect on Dr. King; he referenced it a few years later in a high school oration.

Dr. King was moved by many different styles and genres of music.  According to historian Taylor Branch, one of his favorite operas was Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti.

He also loved German baroque composer George Frideric Handel’s Oratorio Messiah

and quoted the text of the Hallelujah chorus in a 1957 Speech entitled “Loving Your Enemies”.

One of Dr. King’s favorite songs was Precious Lord Take my Hand.  He often invited singer Mahalia Jackson to sing it at civil rights rallies.  She also sang it at his funeral.  Thomas Dorsey, one of the founding fathers of gospel music, wrote Precious Lord after the death of his wife and baby son.

Mahalia Jackson singing Precious Lord Take My Hand. 

One of the most famous and emblematic songs of the Civil Rights Movement was We Shall Overcome. In April 1960, at the Highlander Folk Center, folk singer Guy Carawan taught We Shall Overcome to college students and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the song took on a life of its own.  In this video, Guy and his wife Candie discuss their life and role in the civil rights movement.  (Warning, the sound isn’t great on this video, use headphones for best listening!)


Additional Resources with Audio and Video:

[1] Branch, Taylor Parting the Waters Simon and Schuster New York, 1998 pg 54