Title

“Have You Got Good Religion?”: The SNCC Freedom Singers and American Civil Rights

Presentation Type

Presentation

Abstract

In the turbulent environment of the American civil rights movement, music served a multitude of purposes: it provided unity, emotional release, social commentary, and simply an occupation for participants in sit ins, marches, and rallies. The Freedom Singers were a group of college-age musicians brought together through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. While they were active, they performed for hundreds of thousands of people on college campuses, at marches and even in prisons. Their main goal was to further SNCC’s mission of registering black voters, but they accomplished much more: they played an integral role in incorporating northern white college students into the movement, and without them the activist community with its many social classes, faith backgrounds, and political slants would have been even more difficult to unite. Writing this paper, I conducted extensive primary and secondary research. I was lucky enough to interview Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original members of the Freedom Singers, and learn about her experience and memories. Recordings and videos also added to the context of the paper. The argument presented here is unique for several reasons. It places the Freedom Singers in their own time and place with other actors in the movement rather than applying their methods to today’s society. I applied Ninian Smart’s tiered analysis of religion in a unique exploration of sacred music by focusing on music as a complex social force rather than simply entertainment or art. While some scholars have examined music’s role in the civil rights movement, very few have focused specifically on the Freedom Singers, who were unique because of both their age and their integration of political, religious and social commentary in song. Without them, the upheaval that was the civil rights movement would likely have lasted much longer, and could have ended quite differently.

Category

Humanities

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Apr 17th, 2:00 PM Apr 17th, 2:20 PM

“Have You Got Good Religion?”: The SNCC Freedom Singers and American Civil Rights

UC 331

In the turbulent environment of the American civil rights movement, music served a multitude of purposes: it provided unity, emotional release, social commentary, and simply an occupation for participants in sit ins, marches, and rallies. The Freedom Singers were a group of college-age musicians brought together through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. While they were active, they performed for hundreds of thousands of people on college campuses, at marches and even in prisons. Their main goal was to further SNCC’s mission of registering black voters, but they accomplished much more: they played an integral role in incorporating northern white college students into the movement, and without them the activist community with its many social classes, faith backgrounds, and political slants would have been even more difficult to unite. Writing this paper, I conducted extensive primary and secondary research. I was lucky enough to interview Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original members of the Freedom Singers, and learn about her experience and memories. Recordings and videos also added to the context of the paper. The argument presented here is unique for several reasons. It places the Freedom Singers in their own time and place with other actors in the movement rather than applying their methods to today’s society. I applied Ninian Smart’s tiered analysis of religion in a unique exploration of sacred music by focusing on music as a complex social force rather than simply entertainment or art. While some scholars have examined music’s role in the civil rights movement, very few have focused specifically on the Freedom Singers, who were unique because of both their age and their integration of political, religious and social commentary in song. Without them, the upheaval that was the civil rights movement would likely have lasted much longer, and could have ended quite differently.