Singing for Freedom


In the early 1960s, Mississippi was the poorest state in the nation, with most non-white families living well below the poverty line. Although African Americans made up nearly half of the state's population, few were registered to vote, and there were no African American representatives in the Democratic Party. In 1964, a presidential election year, civil rights organizations decided to focus on four goals in Mississippi: registering African Americans to vote; using the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the Mississippi Democratic delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention; setting up "Freedom Schools" for African American children to study reading, math, and history; and establishing centers where African Americans could get legal and medical help.

Approximately 1,000 people from all over the country were trained and sent to Mississippi to help accomplish these goals. They were to spend the summer traveling throughout the state, registering voters, and setting up schools and legal and medical centers in African American communities. Some of these civil rights workers were African American and from the Deep South, while many were white college students from elsewhere in the country. They were required to bring $500 for bail as well as money to cover living expenses, medical bills, and transportation home. These young people began to arrive in Mississippi in June 1964. On June 21, not long after the arrival of the first group of 200 civil rights workers, three of them—an African American from Mississippi and two whites from New York City—disappeared. The bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were found on August 4. They had been murdered.

The murders testify to the danger that confronted civil rights workers during that summer. They were constantly harassed by people who did not agree with what they were doing, but the civil rights workers practiced nonviolence. They did not get into physical confrontations with those who harassed or threatened them. These young people used song to build community, gather strength, and to keep themselves from being overwhelmed by the dangers of their work. Often the songs they sang were modifications of nineteenth-century spirituals sung by African American slaves or songs that had been composed by anonymous African Americans immediately after emancipation.



  • Students will interpret primary and secondary sources in an effort to understand the struggle for women’s suffrage in the United States.
  • Students will demonstrate their understanding of historical events by creating PowerPoint presentations or writing individual essays.

Essential Question

  • How did civil rights workers use songs to promote their cause during the Freedom Summer of 1964?


  1. Read the poem "What Is Wrong?" to the students.
  2. Draw three columns on chart paper and label the first column POEM and the second one FAVORITE SONG.
  3. Ask the students how the poem makes them feel and record their responses in the first column.
  4. Ask the students to close their eyes and think of a favorite song. Ask them how the song makes them feel and record their answers below the FAVORITE SONG label.
  5. You will use the chart again later in the lesson.

Day One


  • Students will use primary and secondary sources to deepen their understanding of why Freedom Songs were used during the summer of 1964.


  1. On a map of the United States, point out Mississippi. Tell the students that the class will be learning about the civil rights movement and events that took place during the summer of 1964. Hand out Freedom Summer 1964 Sheet (with the bottom folded to the line below the first paragraph). Either have students read the first paragraph or read it to them.
  2. Point to Ohio on the map and explain that approximately 1,000 young people from all over the United States went there to be trained to go to Mississippi during the summer of 1964. Ask the students to list on the blank folded section of the paper three things that civil rights workers could have done for African American people in Mississippi. Make a web on chart paper and write CIVIL RIGHTS WORKERS in the center. Ask students to use their lists to answer the question. Record the answers and highlight responses that include registering people to vote; training people to become politicians; and setting up schools, clinics, and legal services.
  3. Unfold the paper and read the second paragraph. Ask the students to comment on the pictures.
  4. Select one song from the jukebox in June 2008 issue of History Now and play it for the students. Or if an Internet connection is not available in the classroom, first listen to the songs at home so that you can sing them to students in the classroom. (The printable song lyrics are available online.)
  5. Go back to the chart labeled POEM and FAVORITE SONG and label the third column FREEDOM SONG. Ask the students how the freedom song or songs that they just heard made them feel. Record their answers in the third column on the chart from the motivation exercise. Discuss the feelings recorded on the chart and how they relate to students’ feelings about the poem and about the songs they labeled as their favorites.

Day Two


  • Students will analyze and write their own verses for the freedom songs.


  1. Replay or repeat the singing of freedom songs the students heard during Day One or choose new freedom songs to play or sing.
  2. Have the students work in pairs or small groups. Hand out a copy of a freedom song to each group. Ask the students to read the song to one another and figure out what it is about. Have students tell the whole group about each song.
  3. Ask the students what they notice about the songs. Elicit that each song features repetition and ask the students why they think so many of the words and phrases are repeated. Remind them that these songs were originally sung by groups of people who might not have had access to the printed words that went with the music.
  4. Ask each pair or group of students to write its own verse for the song that the pair or group is studying. Lead the class in the song.


  • Ask the students to consider which form of expression -- music, film, TV, radio broadcast, newspaper and magazine articles, ads, or posters -- is most effective way to communicate feelings and ask them to explain why. Then ask: Why did the leaders of the civil rights movement rely so heavily on music?


Have the students write letters to their families as if they were civil rights workers during the summer of 1964. Samples of real letters can be found at the link provided for the poem "What is Wrong" above.

Ask students to select images about Freedom Summer on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website and have them write journal entries as if they were a person in one of the pictures.

Teach the students the songs from the interactive feature on the History Now website and organize a sing-along or an assembly performance that features the songs. This is a great way to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday in January or Black History Month in February.