African Americans and Freedom: The Soundtrack

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

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

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