African Americans and Freedom: The Soundtrack

These songs are more than just music. They’re the sounds of our history.

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Parishioners sing during Easter service in Harlem at Mount Olivet Baptist Church in New York City, April 8, 2007.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Every tale of struggle and triumph has its soundtrack, and African Americans’ fight for freedom in the U.S. is no different. From spirituals with roots in Africa to songs with hidden messages for those fleeing slavery to brave civil rights anthems, these works of music are more than art—they’re the sound of our history. 

1. “Oh Freedom” is thought to date back to the post-Civil War era, though no specific author is known, and became an important anthem during the civil rights movement.

2. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is an African-American spiritual first compiled and published by John Wesley Work Jr.

3. “We’ll Never Turn Back” was written by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member Bertha Gober.

4. “We Shall Not Be Moved” is a traditional American folk song thought to have lyrics originating in the slave era. There is no indication of who wrote the song or when, but it was adapted by civil rights activists.

5. Though it became an important song during the civil rights era, “This Little Light of Mine” is not believed to be derived from any slave spiritual.

6. “A Change Is Gonna Come” was written in 1963 by singer Sam Cooke and was released as a single shortly after his death in 1964.

7. American folk singer and activist Pete Seeger adapted and helped popularize “We Shall Overcome” by teaching it to rally and protest attendees during the civil rights movement.

8. While the specific composer is unknown, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is believed to have its roots in Native American and African-American history.

9. “Wade in the Water” is thought to have contained hidden messages for slaves attempting to escape to freedom in the North.

10. Known as the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written by James Weldon Johnson in 1899.

11. Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964 in response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the death of four little girls in the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing.

12. Inspired by the Lorraine Hansberry play of the same name, Nina Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black" in memory of Hansberry, her friend, in 1970.

13. “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” based on the traditional African-American spiritual “Gospel Plow,” became one of the quintessential songs of the civil rights movement.

14. “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is thought to have contained a coded message to give fugitive slaves a point of reference while fleeing to the North.

15. Civil rights activists in Albany, Ga., adapted “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” from an older spiritual.