Music and the Movement

Music always has been a part of political movements. The civil rights movement was once described as the greatest singing movement in our nation’s history. Many of the songs grew out of the rich culture of the black churches in the South and fit different moods and situations: Songs for joy. Songs for sorrow. Songs for determination. Songs for irony. Songs for humor. Songs to get you past the fear. Songs to celebrate.  In this lesson, students will identify political issues that are important to them, choose a song and then rewrite the words to support the issue and fit the music’s rhythm.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to: 

  • recognize and discuss the role of protest songs in the Birmingham youth movement. 
  • identify their own political agendas and write protest songs.
Essential Questions
  • What important protest music came out of the Civil Rights Movement?
  • Why might music such as protest songs be created during times of unrest?
  • Enduring Understandings:
    • Meaningful songs and music reflecting the times were developed during the Civil Rights Movement.
    • In times of unrest and protest, people often compose songs about pressing issues to help unify others around the cause and to promote the protest’s key messages.


  • demonstration [dem-uh n-strey-shuh n] (noun) a public exhibition of the attitude of a group of persons toward a controversial issue, or other matter, made by picketing, parading, etc.  
  • nonviolence [non-vahy-uh-luh ns] (noun) the policy, practice, or technique of refraining from the use of power or physical force or injury—especially when reacting to, or protesting against, oppression, injustice, or discrimination 
  • protest [proh-test] (noun) an expression or declaration of objection/disapproval, often in opposition to something 


Suggested Procedure

1. Tell students that you will be exploring a historical moment that shows how music can help change the world for the better. Explain that in the summer of 1963, it appeared that the Civil Rights Movement had stalled in Birmingham, Alabama. Adults there found that their involvement in the movement brought economic threats to their families, and caused them to worry about their ability to pay their bills.  

The Rev. James Bevel, one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), came up with an idea: Let the children march. And, after receiving training in nonviolence, Birmingham’s young people did just that. The children of Birmingham sang a new song that summer. It went to the tune of “The Old Gray Mare.” The fusion of marching and song was strategic. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, speaking to the young people about nonviolence, had said,  “It’s to be a silent demonstration. No songs, no slogans, no replies to obscenities.” Everyone nodded in agreement. “However,” Shuttlesworth added, “when you’re arrested, sing your hearts out.” That’s exactly what happened. So when a police officer shouted, “You’re all under arrest!” hundreds of voices united in song:  

“Ain’t a-scared of your jail, ’cause I want my freedom, 

I want my freedom, 

I want my freedom. 

Ain’t a-scared of your jail, ’cause I want my freedom, 

I want my freedom now!” 

They went on to sing other verses, beginning… 

“Ain’t a-scared of your dogs, ’cause ... 

“Ain’t a-scared of your hose, ’cause ...” 

2. After discussing this event, help your students make personal connections to the tactic. Ask students individually to list at least five political issues that deeply concern them. Encourage them to share their list of topics with the whole group, and list responses on the board. (Among them might be: poverty, joblessness, police violence, the hungry, eating disorders, sexual harassment, bullying, race relations, peace, etc.) 

3. Point out that the children in Birmingham sang their song to a simple and familiar tune, “The Old Gray Mare.” They did not need to learn a new song or concentrate on the musical rhythm. Instead, they could focus on the passion of the message. This remains a great strategy. As a first step, think of a simple song from childhood and combine it with important activist messages. Consider selecting one of the following songs. 

  • “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” 
  • “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” 
  • “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” 
  • “You Are My Sunshine” 
  • “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” 
  • “The Wheels on the Bus” 
  • “Old McDonald Had a Farm”  
  • “The Farmer in the Dell”  

4. If necessary, model what students should do. Choose a topic of your own or a topic that students mentioned. For example, the words below focus on the inequality of boys’ and girls’ sports teams, and can be sung to the tune of “This Little Light of Mine.”  

“We want the same resources that the boys’ team gets. 

We want the same resources that the boys’ team gets. 

We want the same resources that the boys’ team gets. 

Equity! Equity! Equity! 

“We want the prime time slot, Friday night at 8 (Sing three times) 

8 o’clock! 8 o’clock! 8 o’clock! 

“How many women athletes can you name out loud? (Sing three times.) 

Name one! Name one! Name one!” 

5. Ask students to work individually or in pairs to create political songs. Suggest that they use the simple tune of one of the children’s songs listed above. Use this lesson as a foundation and then let your students get creative. Encourage them to use contemporary songs, artists, or genres, as well as songs that reflect the racial and ethnic diversity in the classroom. Use this Rubric to help you guide the activity. 

Common Core State Standards: ELA-Literacy. CCRA. W.3; W.4; W.7; SL.1; SL.3; SL.4; L.4


Extension Activity

To extend the lesson beyond the classroom, encourage students to write protest songs for things they want to change. Practice the protest songs in your classroom. Then sing them in the school halls, at a school assembly or concert, or perform them at an event in the community.

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