Viewed as an original historical source, popular music reflects the diverse attitudes of the American public at different times in history. Music presents insights and multiple points of view as well as an emotional impact which other historical documents, particularly written, often lack. Through music, history comes alive and students can connect directly with people and events which may otherwise seem remote to them. As such, rock and roll can be a particularly powerful tool to introduce recent historical events and issues.

Throughout its fifty-year history rock artists have used their music as a forum to address various social and political conditions surrounding them. This packet focuses particularly on “protest” or “message” songs associated with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a cause which inspired large numbers of Americans--and performers in particular--to civil disobedience and significantly influenced subsequent events and attitudes in this country.


Students will be able to:

  1. Understand the emotional impact of popular music associated with the civil rights movement
  2. Identify connections between particular songs and historical events, attitudes and/or figures
  3. Recognize multiple points of view toward the issue of race relations in America both historically and in contemporary society
  4. Evaluate selected songs as effective tools for social protest and as an historical documents
  5. Describe the role music played in the civil rights movement of the 1960s



CDs, tapes, records of selected civil rights music; lyrics to selected songs; primary source material (i.e. newspaper/magazine articles, photographs, etc.)


7 to 10 class periods incorporating material into existing curricula. The lesson could be taught as a complete unit in 2 to 3 class periods.


Suggested for high school social studies students.


Actual procedures will vary depending on how material is incorporated into existing curricula and from teacher to teacher.

  1. Play Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (also recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary and Stevie Wonder) as an introduction to the period and to the idea of a “protest” song. Lead class discussion. What are the main themes and attitudes expressed? Why would this song become an anthem of civil rights movement?
  2. Incorporate songs related to discussion topics/material covered in class and textbook. Some songs should refer to specific events, people or period in history (e.g. “Abraham, Martin and John” written in response to assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King) while others should express more universal issues ("If I Had a Hammer").
  3. Divide class into small groups of 3 to 5 students. Assign one song to each group and distribute the lyrics. Instruct each group to listen carefully to the song and relate it to material covered in class, keeping in mind the following questions:
    • What emotions are expressed by the song (lyrics and/or music)?
    • To whom is the song addressed?
    • What issues, problems, or events are presented in the song? Does the song seem to be written in response to a specific event?
    • What points of view or attitudes are revealed?
    • What were the circumstances at the time the song was released?
    • Does this song suggest any solutions to the issues/problems addressed?
    • How effective is this song as a social protest?
    • What, if any, relevance does this song have to American society today
    • Have groups report back to class on answers to these questions. Have class compare and contrast the multiple points of view found in the songs.


As a culminating activity, have students write an essay integrating popular music of the period with other primary source material.

For Example

Compare and contrast “We Shall Overcome” by Joan Baez with “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” by James Brown, reflecting on the differences in tone and attitude. How do these songs reflect the changing focus of the civil rights movement throughout the 1960s as expressed in the following quotes:

I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. -Martin Luther King, Jr.

This thing with me will be resolved by death and violence. -Malcolm X

Use other historical documents (teacher provided) as well as your knowledge of the history of the 1960s to support your answer.


Compare attitudes found in 1960s protest songs to attitudes toward race relations as found in contemporary popular music. Ask students to consider the lasting impact of the civil rights movement. Suggested songs include: “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, “Black Is Black” by Jungle Brothers, “Black to the Future” by Def Jef, “Black or White” by Michael Jackson and “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. Students may also have suggestions.

Research racial prejudice in the music industry. Students may want to consider such aspects as the “race” records in the early part of this century, the fact that the “Golden Age of Soul” was dependent on a music industry dominated by whites, and the rise of rap on independent labels in the 1980s and 1990s.

Explore the history of Berry Gordy, Jr. and Motown Records. Have students consider whether this story represents the fulfillment of the American dream for black Americans or the transformation of African-American culture and music into a form palatable to white mainstream America?

In English class, explore the use of rhetorical devices in the lyrics. For example, compare and contrast the diction in “We Shall Overcome” and “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).”

Ask students to respond to the question

Can a song written in response to a specific event transcend time and place and have a lasting appeal? In your opinion, which of the songs listened to in class have such an appeal? Is there a contemporary song dealing with the issue of race relations that in your opinion will stand the test of time? Why?


Of the myriad of music styles popular in the early 1960s, folk music was the first to become socially relevant. The most important figure of the 1960s folk boom was Bob Dylan, whose deeply resonant topical songs ("Masters of War,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’") helped put in motion the trend of popular performers becoming intimately involved with social causes. Always supportive of populist causes, 1960s folk music embraced the civil rights movement. Although music had not been a direct organizing force in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycotts of 1955 and 1956, by the 1960 lunch-counter sit-ins, “freedom songs” had become central to the movement. Northern singers such as Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary traveled south to sing at rallies and churches. Baez’s “We Shall Overcome,” based on an 18th century hymn, was recorded live at Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Supplemented by hundreds of amateur singers as well as black and white college students working as civil rights volunteers, these performers helped make the 1964 and 1965 “freedom summers.” Dylan, Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Odetta and Harry Belafonte performed during the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963 where he gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. Also in 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” broke onto traditional southern R&B stations and became the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement. Through folk music, performers spoke out against injustice and discrimination, spreading their socially-conscious stance to a generation of young Americans and musicians who began to incorporate meaningful lyrics into their songs.

Another type of music heavily associated with the civil rights movement is soul, a genre which combines the passion and vocal techniques of gospel music with the secular subject matter and instrumentation of rhythm & blues. As performed by such artists as James Brown and Aretha Franklin, soul dominated both the pop and R&B charts in the 1960s with both blacks and whites buying the same records. This soul explosion coincided with the spirit of integration in America which inspired the struggle for civil rights. By the mid-1960s such songs as Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “Keep on Pushing” expressed the hopes of a better life for African-Americans. Unfortunately, although soul music triumphed on the pop charts, black artists and business leaders (with the notable exception of Berry Gordy, Jr. at Detroit’s Motown Records) were still largely dependent on white music industry professionals. In April 1968 the golden age of soul came to an end with the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.--an event which caused unmistakable hostility in black neighborhoods all over the United States.  James Brown’s 1968 “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” reflected a new political thrust among the black community. Instead of focusing exclusively on integration into white mainstream America, the more separatist ideas of black power and black pride were beginning to take hold with a younger generation of African-Americans.

Issues of race continue to be major concerns in American society today and popular music has dealt with these issues throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. In the 1970s artists like Stevie Wonder ("Living For the City") and Marvin Gaye ("Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)") explored the plight of African-Americans in urban areas in their music. In the 1980s and 1990s songs about relations between black and white Americans continued to hit the pop charts (Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney "Ebony and Ivory”; Michael Jackson “Black or White").

It is rap music, however, which confronts the widening rift between black and white Americans most directly. Perhaps the most socially-conscious music of the 1980s and 1990s, rap (a phrase coined in 1976) began in New York dance clubs with DJs interspersing instrumental breaks from popular records with other songs. Using turntables, sound mixers and such techniques as “scratching” and “sampling,” rap developed into an independent form of music that reflected the African-American experience in poor, city neighborhoods. One of the most important early rap songs is “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five which depicts the vicious cycle of ghetto life. The emergence of rap coincided with the ambiguous social legacy of the 1960s civil rights movement and the resurgence of black nationalism in America. Among the mainstream media and general public, rap sometimes has the negative reputation of violent and/or sexually explicitly lyrics. While this is often true, rap’s proponents assert that strong language is necessary to accurately capture a sense of a violent, chaotic society. Groups like Public Enemy ("Fight the Power") express the rage and alienation many poor, urban African-Americans feel. Furthermore, rap’s critics also often ignore rap’s more positive aspects including its encouraging renewed black cultural pride and its outspoken confrontation of tough social issues. Such songs as “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel and Digital Underground’s “The Danger Zone” have explicitly anti-drug lyrics while performers like Salt ‘n Pepa ("Ain’t Nothing But a She Thing") and Queen Latifah ("Ladies First") demonstrate a strong female presence in rap. The diversity of rap music expresses a range of African-American experience and continues to grow as a music form into the 1990s.

Selected Recordings

There are many songs which could be used in this unit.
“Abraham, Martin and John" Dion (Laurie, 1968)
“If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” Peter, Paul and Mary (Warner, 1962)
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" Bob Dylan (Columbia, 1964)
“Keep On Pushing" Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions (ABC-Paramount, 1964)
“People Got to Be Free” The Rascals (Atlantic, 1968)
“Respect Yourself" The Staple Singers (Stax, 1971)
“Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud(Part 1)" James Brown (King, 1968)
“Stand" Sly and the Family Stone (Epic, 1969)
“Think" Aretha Franklin (Atlantic, 1968)
“We Shall Overcome” Joan Baez (Vanguard, 1963)

CD Anthologies

Movin’ On Up (The Right Stuff, a division of Capitol Records, Inc., 1994)
Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movements Through Its Songs (Smithsonian/ Folkways Records, distributed by Rounder Records, 1990)
We Shall Overcome: Songs of the Freedom Riders and the Sit-Ins (Folkways Records, 1961)

Further Reading

Carawan, Guy. We Shall Overcome: Songs of the Southern Freedom Movement. New York: Oak Publications, 1963.
Cooper, B. Lee. “Popular Records as Oral Evidence: Creating an Audio Time Line to Examine American History, 1955-1987,” Social Education. January 1989, pp. 34-40.
Cooper, B. Lee. “Social Concerns, Political Protest, and Popular Music,” The Social Studies. March/April 1988, pp. 53-60.