Here are the freedom songs of the Movement for Black Lives

Black Lives Matter protesters in Baltimore. Image courtesy Dorret.

June 6, 2016 marked an important moment in the history of Black people’s struggle for freedom and equality in the United States and the South in particular—the 50th anniversary of James Meredith’s March Against Fear. Meredith, the first Black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, launched his March Against Fear as an act of defiance against the institutions of Jim Crow racism, which, among other grievances, robbed Black Mississippians of their right to register to vote.(1)

Sunflower County’s NAACP commemorated the March Against Fear in Indianola, Mississippi, on June 21, 2016. There, I had the privilege of sharing a table with respected civil rights veterans Dorie Ladner and Charles McLaurin. They, and others like them, represent the brave “local people” to whom John Dittmer refers in the title of his text on the struggle for civil rights in Mississippi.

McLaurin was honored at the commemoration, along with Dr. Akinyele Umoja, author of “We Will Shoot Back”. In his keynote speech, McLaurin educated the audience on how the March Against Fear made its way to rural Sunflower County. He says it was Fannie Lou Hamer who coaxed Martin Luther King Jr. to the Delta. “We got fear, too,” she reportedly told the minister.

At that time, Mississippi was arguably the most dreaded of the Southern states. From 1882–1968, Mississippi led the nation in lynchings, with a total of 539. Georgia was a close and abominable second with 239 lynchings. In response to the South’s Jim Crow system, youth joined interracial caravans in 1961, intent on challenging de jure segregation on the Greyhound Bus Line. Under the guidance of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), these Freedom Riders traveled from Washington, D.C., deep into the heart of the “former” Confederacy.

Upon their arrival in Jackson, Mississippi, the segregationist governor, Ross Barnett, ordered officers to send the Freedom Riders to Parchman Prison Farm. Historian Raymond Arsenault states, in the PBS documentary “Freedom Riders,” that Parchman penitentiary was “the most dreaded prison in the South,” a place referred to in William Faulkner’s “The Mansion” as “destination doom.” Barnett’s intent was clear—to show the Freedom Riders that they and their ideas of integration and equal rights were not welcome. Yet, in the face of state-sanctioned violence, youth learned to combat their fears with songs of freedom.

Freedom Songs, Then and Now

Though a number of recent texts have begun to parcel out the complexities and forgotten leaders of the civil rights movement, very little attention has been given to the historical and present significance of freedom songs.(2) As youth concentrated in the deep South, demanding freedom, they developed a number of politically conscious songs—indispensable cultural productions that became the soundtrack for the revolution.

Famed freedom singer Bernice Johnson Reagon states that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s meetings were rife with song: “Most of the mass meeting was singing, in Albany. There was more singing than there was talking… And, there would be two or three people who would talk. But, basically, song was the bed of everything.”

Throughout the South, youth took freedom songs to the streets, and ultimately, to prison. Bernard Lafayette Jr., a former Freedom Rider, reported that many freedom songs were improvised and adapted there: “We made up a song saying that ‘busses are comin.’ And we sang it to the jailers to tell them, [to] warn them to get ready, to be prepared, that we were not the only ones comin’. So, we start singing:”

Buses are ah comin’

Oh yes!

Buses are ah comin’

Oh yes!

Buses are ah comin’

Buses are ah comin’

Buses are ah comin’

Oh yes!

Better get you ready

Oh yes!

Better get you ready

Oh yes!

Better get you ready

Oh yes!

In addition to using freedom songs to combat fear and motivate demonstrators, Freedom Riders used wit to incorporate threats as rebuttals. When Parchman’s guards threatened to remove their their mattresses if they did not stop singing, CORE youth incorporated this threat into their song as an invective:

You can take our mattress

Oh yes!

You can take our mattress

Oh yes!

You can take our mattress

You can take our mattress

You can take our mattress

Oh yes!

The strength, determination, and defiance of the Freedom Riders caught fire as youth all throughout the country began to give themselves to the cause. Former Freedom Rider Pauline Knight-Ofosu, recounts:

I got up one morning in May. And I said to my folks at home, “I won’t be back today. Because I’m a Freedom Rider.” It was like a wave or wind that you didn’t know where it was coming from or where it was going. But you knew that you were supposed to be there. Nobody asked me. Nobody told me. It was like putting yeast in bread. It’s a leavening effect.

From “Black Power!” to “Black Lives Matter!”

The “leavening effect” mentioned by Knight-Ofosu has activated today’s Movement for Black Lives. However, instead of freedom songs, chants now dominate—molded to fit the actions of groups like Black Youth Project 100, Black Lives Matter, Southerners on New Ground, and others. On the last day of the recent “Black Power, Black Lives, and Pan-Africanism Conference,” organized by Cooperation Jackson, two generations of freedom songs converged when Hollis Watkins, a freedom singer and local veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, met JeNaé Taylor. Taylor is BYP100’s radical human resources representative, and her meeting with Watkins represented two generations of struggle connected through song.

Organizers in both generations crafted songs and chants while in the midst of struggle—whether trekking down dirt roads in wingtips or up urban avenues in high top Vans. These songs, seemingly absent of any form of copyright, make collective demands, relay resolve, and help conquer fear. Speaking before an audience of young organizers at the conference, Hollis Watkins said, “It’s not that we did not have fear. We were to overcome it.” When asked about her attraction to freedom songs and chants, Taylor spoke to their significance as embedded in their purpose and structure:

I think the first thing is they’re used to mic check, to make sure a group of people are saying the same thing, are unified around the same idea. We’re all in thought and purpose together. We’re uniformed, right now, for this…[Also], I don’t think people need more than four lines. It’s for lots of people to sing to git somewhere. It’s not a radio song. It’s not a turn up at the concert [song]. It’s like, we sing this cause we in action. We organize. It’s like it has to go in tandem with an action, like an organized action.

In honor of this thought and purpose, Hollis and JeNaé led conference participants in reciting one of her chants, one that captures the inspiration and spirit of the long Black freedom struggle and its present push for Black lives:

I love Black people!

You don’t love Black people?!

What’s wrong with you?!

What’s wrong with you?!

I love us! I love us!

I love us! I love us!

Though it may seem that Mississippi is no longer within the purview of today’s Black freedom struggle, recent commemorations, intergenerational collaborations, and state-sponsored attacks—along with the ongoing work of local organizations like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Cooperation Jackson, and the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson—indicate that Mississippi and its people remain of political, cultural, and geographic importance to today’s quest for self-determination via the Movement for Black Lives.


  1. Mississippi oral tradition dictates that Meredith was not actually the first Black student to attend Ole Miss. Some say that distinction belongs to a man whose skin was light enough to “pass” as White. Prior to Meredith’s enrollment, the martyred civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, applied to and was denied entrance into Ole Miss law school.
  2. On forgotten leaders of the civil rights movement, see Katherine Charron’s Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark, Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, and Hasan Jeffries’s Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt. Regarding freedom songs, Cheryl Boots, Senior Lecturer of Humanities at Boston University is drafting a manuscript the use of songs by civil rights workers, and Zandria Robinson, author of This Ain’t Chicago, is composing an essay about “post-soul freedom songs” inspired by Mississippi rapper, Big KRIT.