The Common Good
August 2010

Songs of Freedom

by Jeannie Choi | August 2010

Bettie Mae Fikes talks about the music of the civil rights movement.

She was born in Selma, Alabama. As a child Bettie Mae Fikes traveled the country with her mother, a gospel singer. While she was in high school in the early 1960s, Fikes became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma, emerging as a music leader. She was jailed for several weeks in 1963 for participating in a protest for voting rights. Fikes later became a professional blues singer. Her album How Blue Can You Get? Live at Ancient Lake Gardens (Earthen Vessel Productions) was released earlier this year. Sojourners assistant editor Jeannie Choi spoke with Fikes in March during a congressional civil rights pilgrimage in Alabama with The Faith and Politics Institute.

What role did music play in the civil rights movement? When you’re in a struggle, the first thing you think of is the struggle, rather than the solution. But there are songs that fit every struggle. There are songs for pain, there are songs for happiness, there are songs for everything. So music was the keynote speaker of the movement.
What was your favorite song to sing during the movement? Oh, my favorite? My goodness, I had so many. “Brown Baby” was one. I think the most important one was “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore.” Pete Seeger wrote new words for it. For most of the songs of the movement, we were taking gospel songs and turning them into freedom songs. People like Peter, Paul, and Mary and Joan Baez were writing lyrics to fit the movement. A freedom song that I really liked was “Freedom is a Constant Struggle.” That used to make me teary-eyed every time I heard it, because it was so true.
We had some beautiful writers, like Matthew Jones, who wrote “Oginga Odinga” [about a Kenyan diplomat and freedom fighter who visited the segregated South in 1963]. He’s written one lately that says “who would have thought we’d still be fighting 30 or 40 years down the line?” So songs like that not only have stayed on my heart and my mind for 45 years—songs like that keep me going 45 years later.
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