The Music Behind the 1963 March on Washington

Dean Emmett G. Price III talks about the March on Washington, the significance of the music behind it, and its 60th anniversary.

August 28, 2023

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, also known as the March on Washington or the Great March on Washington, was held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. It was the result of a coalition of civil rights, labor, and religious organizations, as well as student groups. Labor activist A. Philip Randolph was the architect and strategist of the march, and Bayard Rustin, a cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were its key organizers. With an estimated attendance of 250,000 marchers, the largest such demonstration at that time, the crowd marched together to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, demanding civil rights legislation, school desegregation, and protections for Black workers and the economic rights of Black Americans. The day culminated with King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

We reached out to Emmett G. Price III, dean of Africana Studies, and an internationally recognized expert on Black music and culture, Afro-diasporic sacred and secular expressions, and Christian worship, to discuss the impact of the music behind the march and the role of the Black church in social justice movements. A native of Los Angeles, California, Price received a B.A. in music from the University of California, Berkeley, and earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh. Price is the author of the book Hip Hop Culture, a scholarly work that recounts three decades of hip-hop’s evolution and its impact on society. He is executive editor of the Encyclopedia of African American Music and the former editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Beyond his educational and scholarly roles, Price is also a trained composer and arranger who has performed throughout the U.S., the Caribbean, and Europe. 

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did songs like “We Shall Overcome,” “How I Got Over,” and others impact the March on Washington in 1963?

Music is one of the most powerful tools we have as human beings. It has the power to transmit thoughts, emotions, messages, critiques, hopes, and dreams. It also has the power of invitation, not only as a tool of engagement but of exploration, imagination, and transformation. Music can be a soundtrack to life or it can be a projection of possibilities. Music is simultaneous history, present, and future, all in one. Throughout the annals of history, sociopolitical movements, especially freedom movements, have always had a musical component as the coalescing agent. The music keeps the people together, locked step in ideology and in vision. “We Shall Overcome” is a perfect example. Before the historic March on Washington, during the march, and well after the march, this song signals unrelenting hope that “we shall overcome someday.” The power of the song transitions from the individual to the collective: “deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome someday.” “How I Got Over” goes even further to speak in the futuristic hope of when freedom and equality comes, “you know my soul look back and wonder how I got over.” There is no if; this is a song of victorious reflection in the midst of oppressive trauma. That is the power of music, particularly from the Civil Rights Movement. 

Many of the songs sung during the march and the Civil Rights Movement are steeped in religion and specifically in the Black church, and several architects of both were also members of the Black church. Why is this important, and is there a place for the Black church of today to play a significant role in social justice movements like Black Lives Matter?

This is a very important question. I would say these songs were steeped in a spiritual belief in a powerful, divine presence whose power is beyond human conception. These songs, many of which we codify as spirituals, are much bigger and wider than religion. These songs, different from hymnody, are not guided or grounded in specific theological nuances (i.e., Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc.). These songs are about human suffering and invoking the presence of the divine to bring inspiration, encouragement, hope, and healing. The Black church was and remains the sole institution that retains Black autonomy and agency, so it makes sense that the churches would be the main place to sing or experience this repertoire, but these songs are bigger than the church. “And before I’d be a slave I’d be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” It is the spiritual aspect of the song that avails an invitation to people beyond the Black church who also believe in freedom and equality.

Are there any recent songs that stand out to you as having a meaning and a message that resonate on the level of social consciousness?

There are three songs that come to my mind quickly by three powerful Black women from three different genres. They are Rhiannon Giddens’s “Cry No More” (2015), Le’Andria Johnson’s “Better Days” (2018), and H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe” (2020). The lyrics to each offer both the reality of the present challenge while providing a sense of hope and possibility. The music of the Civil Rights Movement was for congregational or mass singing. The music of the Black Lives Matter movement speaks to the individual in hopes that the individual will join the movement.

Many Americans came to know about the march through the presence of activists and artists like Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., and Marlon Brando. What kind of impact did their presence have on the March? 

I agree that the presence of Belafonte, Poitier, Horne, Davis, Brando, Dylan, Baez, Odetta, and many others, including Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson, was important. However, it is the lack of presence of people like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and other non-Black artists who had major platforms who could have helped to elevate the cause that is important to mention. These folks benefited from their proximity and fascination with Black culture, Black music, and Black people . . . and when it came time to help the cause, they and others were noticeably absent.

It’s been 60 years since the March on Washington, and people are still fighting for many of the same rights and issues today that resonate with those of the past: equality, fair wages and economic justice, voting rights, housing, education, and ending police brutality. Do you see a through line that connects that time with what’s going on today, and do you feel any significant progress has been made on these issues?  

You are very generous in your framing of this complicated question. Sixty years later we are not fighting the same fight. The fight is different when you have touched the prize and it is taken (or is being taken away) from you. See, the fruits of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a season of progress with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and some momentum in the areas of health care, housing and economic opportunities for Black people and other ostracized and disenfranchised populations, including white women. Let’s not forget that the march was scheduled to commemorate the centennial of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, thus the selection of the site in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Now, in 2023, across the nation, Black history is being banned. Books by Black authors and about the Black experience in this nation are being banned. The AP African American history exam is being banned. Black voters are being disenfranchised. Black health and the very visible disparities associated with access to health care for Black people are being witnessed across the nation. Jobs for Black people, housing for Black people, and economic opportunities for Black people are all on the chopping block along with affirmative action and other tools that were used as an interventive means towards “equity and justice.” Police brutality, over policing in specific communities of color, inequities within the jurisprudence system, and the mental wellness crisis that is attached to these symptoms of racial discrimination and fear are not signs of progress. Just the opposite!

With the advent of social media, messages can be spread instantly and globally. What role can music play when it comes to galvanizing a social movement in this hyper-connected society? 

Social media has a soundtrack. The various posts, memes, and the like are often accompanied by a musical backdrop that often carries more message than the actual post. In 1970, Gil Scott Heron said, “The revolution will not be televised." During the 1980s and 1990s, it was. During the first two decades of the 21st century, it was on display via social media. Music has been a consistent force in aggregating like-minded people willing to be courageous enough to stand with one another for a shared cause. Music often offers the vision forward with a clarion call for agents of change. Music aids in instigating and stimulating reflection, contemplation, and mobilization. Music often offers the glue that is used to hold people, ideas, hope, and vision together. All of this happens technologically until escalated to the need for physical gathering. Music is one of the greatest tools for the quest for freedom—both then . . . and now.

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