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The Godfather of Soul, R&B, and Civil Rights

Music, like other art forms from the civil rights era, reflected both the turmoil and the hopes of African Americans during this time. Soul music and Rhythm and blues (R&B) successfully captured these messages, attracting artists like Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and the Temptations. Many of these musical talents recorded songs for Motown Records, a label founded in Detroit, Michigan, in 1959. In the early 1960s and into the 1970s, Motown provided a haven for many black artists who faced hardships when they tried to produce for white-owned labels. Soul, a term used to describe the joining of R&B and gospel styles, appropriately describes the music of these artists since they pointed to deeply rooted emotions that stemmed from the discrimination faced by black Americans.

Aretha Franklin
signed with Columbia Records in 1960, but did not fully blossom as an artist until she partnered with Atlantic Records in 1966. John Hammond Jr., Franklin's agent at Columbia, remarked that the white-owned company failed to recognize Franklin's incredible talent. Her ability to use her passion for singing to unite black Americans earned her the title "the Queen of Soul." One of her most famous recordings, “Respect,” released in 1967, resonated throughout both black and white communities, particuarly among young people. Originally composed by Georgia native Otis Redding, the title and lyrics of this song reflected one of the most constant demands of civil rights activists. Franklin performed at benefit concerts for different civil rights groups, for example, the Martin Luther King Fund.

Artists such as Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye also wrote songs infused with social consciousness and the spirit of the Movement. Mayfield sang with The Impressions, a group whose song “We’re a Winner” (1968) became extremely popular with civil rights activists. Mayfield wrote other politically charged songs for The Impressions, such as “Keep on Pushing” (1964) and “We’re Rolling On” (1967). Organizations including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Black Panther Party for Self-defense used this song to encourage activists at civil rights rallies and demonstrations. “What’s Going On” (1971), a song recorded by Gaye, also united activists who understood his descriptions of the vicissitudes of inner-city African American life.

James Brown's life and activism significantly influenced blacks in general, but some of his songs reflect the need for change that was so much a part of this Movement. Brown spoke to a crowd in Augusta in 1970 following race riots sparked by the horrific death of a young man in police custody. After the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, his performance in Boston helped prevent riots from erupting. Brown, like Franklin, used concerts as platforms to spread the philosophy of nonviolence and to bring attention to civil rights organizations. Black people respected Brown and his music, which helped to promote black consciousness and peace.

Some R&B artists, especially those who spoke out for the Civil Rights Movement, became targets of racism and mistreatment. In 1967, Bertha Franklin, manager of the Hacienda hotel in Los Angeles, shot and killed Sam Cooke under suspicious circumstances. The jury found her not guilty on the basis of self-defense. Likewise, Aretha Franklin’s father, the Reverend Clarence Franklin, was arrested for possession of marijuana in what some deemed as a “frame-up.” Likewise, as late as the 1970s, some entertainment venues in major cities such as New York and Las Vegas would not book African American artists because of their race.

As well known representatives of their communities, R&B singers called upon their black listeners to resist oppression actively, and they spoke out against inequality. R&B singers of the 1960s and 1970s participated in a larger cultural and musical tradition, including the Blues, Gospel, and Soul, in which songs both entertained and educated. Inspired by the Black Arts Movement as well, musical artists of the 1960s and 1970s joined black poets, black playwrights, black painters, and black dancers to declare that effective art must first and foremost promote social change. Using songs which became self-affirming anthems, concerts which became political rallies, and people who became cultural icons, R&B galvanized black communities into action.

Throughout history, African Americans have used music as a bulwark and comfort against ubiquitous bigotry and racism. In the pre-Civil War South, enslaved blacks sang spirituals that spoke of the desire for freedom. After emancipation, African American congregations incorporated such traditional hymns and spirituals into their worship services. In the twentieth century, many artists who sang secular music acknowledged their roots in the sacred tradition. Artists like Bernice Johnson Reagon took the rhythms and images of sacred music to create freedom songs that inspired civil rights activists to march and protest injustice. Thus, African American music, both in the church and on the streets, has always served a dual purpose of focusing its listeners on better days to come and providing a blueprint for constructively changing real-life political and social situations.

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Discussion Questions

1. Motown, the premiere record label for African American artists during the Civil Rights Movement, was founded by the African American entrepreneur Berry Gordy and based in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit was home to a sizeable middle class African American community, thanks to the automobile factories and other industries which had attracted many black southerners during the Great Migration after World War II. Click here to read Matt Borghi's summary of Detroit's race relations from the first half of the twentieth century to the late 1970s. What conditions in "Motor City" motivated musicians to adopt explicitly political lyrics and styles?

2. Read the lyrics to these songs: "Try a Little Tenderness" (YEAR), "Respect" (1967), and . Many of the artists discussed in this story--Redding, Franklin, and Brown, for example--became famous for hit records that attracted both black and non-black audiences. What contributed to these songs' abilities to cross racial barriers?

3. Read Alice Walker's story "Nineteen Fifty-five." What does this story suggest about the relationship between early white rock-and-roll artists and black R&B and Soul artists of the late 1950s and 1960s? Can you find an example of a song that was written by one author and covered by artists of different races and/or genders? Is there evidence of a history of co-optation or exploitation and if so, why?

4. Compare the lyrics of a hip-hop artist or group from the 1980s (Curtis Blow, Public Enemy, KRS-One, or Queen Latifah) to the lyrics of a hip-hop artist or group from the late twentieth or twenty-first century (Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Lil Kim, T.I.). Has hip-hop picked up where the freedom songs and the politicized R&B songs and other present day forms that challenge the status quo left off?

5. Why should we consider R&B music as civil rights art?  What are some other famous examples of art to come out of the civil rights era (i.e. famous books, plays, short stories, poetry)?

Take it to the Streets!

Music produced during the civil rights era continues to connect with audiences today because of the timelessness of the lyrics. Although African American artists made the most famous songs related to the movement, musicans of all stripes contributed songs of protest about injustices in America. Look up the lyrics to one song from each genre listed below, then analyze its lyrics and their meanings. Write a two-page essay that compares and contrasts the lyrics and tones of the R&B songs with those of the rock and folk songs. Make sure to discuss similar themes and issues raised by each musical form. What differences do you detect between songs produced by African American artists and those of white rock artists?

R&B:  Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come” (1964); Aretha Franklin, “Respect” (1967); James Brown, “Say It Loud - I’m Black And I’m Proud” (1968); Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” (1971)

Rock/Folk:  Bob Dylan “Blowing In The Wind” (1963); Joan Baez “We Shall Overcome” (preformed at the March on Washington, 1963); The Beatles, “Blackbird” (1968); The Rascals “People Got To Be Free” (1969)

Writers: Amelia Kohli, Lucy McGee, and Jacob Reuse in Professor Barbara McCaskill's ENGL 4860 (The Civil Rights Movement in American Literature), Fall 2007.

Editors and Researchers: Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill

Web Designer: William Weems

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