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Relationship between the US Civil Rights Movement and Soul/Funk Music

Info: 1712 words (7 pages) Essay
Published: 18th May 2020 in History

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Discuss the connection between the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century and Soul/Funk music, and their impact on one another.

The Civil Rights Movement (CRM) evolved and reached its peak during the mid-20th century. The movement was born out of African Americans’ frustration with segregation and discrimination as was implemented through Jim Crow rules (Reed, 2019). It was during this era that black Americans endured extreme hardships and horrific acts of violence at the hands of white supremacists. The government tried to damage the integrity of black Americans through humiliating acts such as whipping without success (Riches, 2017). Music played a critical role in keeping black Americans’ hopes alive in such a trying moment. Specifically, soul music became inseparable with the campaign for equality and black rights. As a genre, Soul Music evolved to become a form of expression that black Americans relied upon to seek justice in an era of racial segregation (Harris, 2015). Several soul musicians, including James Brown, became popular through CRM by becoming part of the movement and serving a message of black empowerment to the black folks. The CRM could not have been as successful as it was without the power of Soul Music that united and gave hope to black Americans in an era of intense racial discrimination.

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Soul music breathed life into civil rights and black empowerment. It acted as a galvanizing force in times of despair among black Americans before evolving to become the movement’s soundtrack. One of the songs that exemplifies the strong link between CRM and soul music as a genre is Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke. Composed in 1963, the song grew to become the movement’s anthem by 1964 because it expressed the suffering endured by African Americans. According to Peters (2014), the song was used by black Americans as a source of hope during a period when they were enduring harsh mistreatment and racial violence. Activists sang the song while holding arms to invigorate a sense of black consciousness among African Americans. Some of the attributes that it promoted include optimism in the presence of challenges and adversity. For example, the reigning theme of the song ran along the lines of ‘But I know a change gonna come, oh yet it will’ to exemplify a deep sense of self-confidence. With the song, black Americans were able to endure the harsh treatment from white supremacists and still pursue justice and equality.

Soul music became intertwined with the American CRM and aspects of race relations. To African Americans, the CRM and subsequent struggle for social, political and economic equality during the Jim Crow era evolved to unite the race under one common course (Moore, 2017). It was during this strenuous period that the U.S. was experiencing the phenomenon that is the ‘Soul Explosion’ (Smith, 2015). By 1970s, what may have been once referred to as ‘black’ music started to crossover into ‘white’ America with significant success. The impact that this transition had on the main leaders and followers of CRM was unprecedented. According to Smith (2015), soul music helped the black artists to attain the summits of economic success while black listeners found a solace in the music to gain a voice of purpose, unity, and endurance. For example, James Brown had another song titled ‘”Say it Loud…Im Black and I’m Proud”’ that signified the need for perseverance and an undying sense of self-pride. It was a song that typified the struggle for equality in an otherwise violent environment. As for the movement’s leaders, the song found a rallying point through these songs. However, the most profound impact that the soul music had was facilitating the embrace of some part of black culture by some white audiences. Soul music acted as a link between white audiences and black culture. 

With the emergence of the music genre, whites began to understand the black culture. Soul music helped facilitate white people’s access into black cultures – a trend that helped to change previously grounded misconceptions about African Americans (Ward, 2012). The white perception of black Americans seemed to alter albeit gradually the more soul music garnered its reputation as a hallmark of social, political and economic justice. Individual artists could now venture into entrepreneurial tasks that helped to create a new perception of black Americans’ abilities amongst the white supremacists who viewed African Americans as inferior during the CRM (Smith, 2015). Sam Cooke was among the black musicians who flourished to develop his record label to allow him to control his fate in the music industry. According to Smith (2015), the more soul music was consumed the more it penetrated the white world to break a previously stubborn segregation barrier in the U.S. One of the best examples of how soul music created an undeniable link between cultures is the development of a new association between white and black Americans. Black and white musicians started to collaborate in studio to form popular bands – a development that was uncommon (Danielson, 2015). The M.G.’s (white) and Booker T. (black) united in a recording label based in Memphis Tennessee to form a popular studio band (Smith, 2015). 

Soul music acted as a platform of remembrance among African Americans. In the second half of the 20th century, music became a significant reminder of the tragedies that blacks experienced. One of the significant cases that exemplifies this point has to be the bombing in Alabama. According to Neal (2013), white supremacists under the label Ku Klux Klan set off a bomb on September 15, 1963, in an Alabama church where the death toll included four children. It was in the aftermath of this tragedy that John Coltrane wrote a song titled ‘Alabama’ whose aim was to mourn the innocent children. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used the song during the burial as a background of his message and a rallying cry for black Americans. The song, although an instrumental, transformed the mourning procession at the burial and across the U.S. into an army of black rights advocates. There was a renewed sense of determination among black Americans under the boiling anger and desperation. Ultimately, the song did not need lyrics to help black Americans to discover their achievements amidst the challenges. There was renewed vigor for justice after this song was played in the background as Martin Luther read the eulogy. A unified assault at the segregational system under Jim Crow was born out of this song. It is this perspective that soul music can be seen to have intertwined with the CRM to act as a platform of remembrance among African Americans.

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Similarly, the CRM provided adequate content for songwriters to compose music. Music was a reflection of the events that unfolded under CRM. For example, Grant Green’s song titled ‘Selma March’ was written following a march for voting rights conducted by activists in 1965 (Carter, 2012). Earlier attempts to hold the march between Selma and Montgomery had been marred by riots and resulted in bloodshed earlier in the same month. However, the march eventually happened after a restraining order was overruled in the same month. Martin Luther led the protest on March 21 that culminated to the passage of Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Carter, 2012). Grant Green composed a song that captured these events as they unfolded, meaning that the CRM provided sufficient content that soul music writers could rely upon to develop their songs. It was a song that recounted the perseverance shown by supporters of civil rights movement in the fight for voting rights and representation. In this perspective, the CRM and soul music are intertwined and impact each other.

The civil rights movement achieved immense success because of its associated link to soul music. Luther could not have been as successful with CRM were it not for the power of soul music. Soul music united and gave hope to black Americans in an era of intense racial discrimination and violence. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, music of soul and funk became inseparable with the campaign for equality and black rights as led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In a demonstration of the inseparable nature of the two components, CRM provided enough content for songwriters to create soul music. The connection between music and activism continues in the 21st century as more black artists use the platform to call out injustices. 


  • Carter, D. C. (2012). The music has gone out of the movement: Civil rights and the Johnson administration, 1965-1968. UNC Press Books.
    Danielson, J. (2015). The role of soul: Stax Records and the civil rights movement in Memphis, Tennessee.
  • Harris, F. C. (2015). The next civil rights movement?. Dissent, 62(3), 34-40.
    Moore, R. (2017). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. Macat Library.
  • Neal, M. A. (2013). What the music said: Black popular music and black public culture. Routledge.
  • Peters, C. (2014). Soul, funk and the music of the Black Panthers. ABC. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/intothemusic/soul,-funk-and-the-music-of-the-black-panthers/5527246
  • Reed, T. V. (2019). The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Present. U of Minnesota Press.
  • Riches, W. (2017). The civil rights movement: Struggle and resistance. Macmillan International Higher Education.
  • Smith, C. (2015). The Last Mile of The Way: Soul Music and the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Ward, B. (2012). Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations. Routledge.


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