Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

The Freedom Riders and the Popular Music of the Civil Rights Movement

A Created Equal Resource
Created April 5, 2011


The Lesson


Freedom Riders: Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke, singer, half-length portrait, standing, facing right, singing into microphone

Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress

It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come

-Sam Cooke, R&B, Gospel, and pop singer.

Those words made up the chorus to Sam Cooke’s passionate track “A Change is Gonna Come.” The participants of the civil rights movement recognized the power of song and performance and utilized this form of cultural communication in their quest for equal justice under law. The popular music of the early 1960s offers a unique and engaging entry point into the politics surrounding equal rights in mid-twentieth century America.

Through collaborative activities and presentations, students will find the meaning behind the music and compare and contrast the major figures, documents, and events of the day to better understand the political and cultural messages. The first activity of the lesson focuses on the Freedom Riders as a example of the interweaving of protest and music. In the second activity, students participate in an interview-based activity to develop skills in oral history and relate the past to the present. In the remaining activities students will learn to analyze the meanings and messages behind the music and discover how such creative outpourings continue to play a vital role in the struggle for the civil rights. 

Guiding Questions

  • How did the popular music of the 1960s influence or aid the civil rights movement?
  • How did the Freedom Riders and other political activists inspire or help produce civil rights-oriented music?

Learning Objectives

  • Have a better grasp of the role of popular culture as a tool for social change
  • Recognize the connection between non-violent protest and the use of music for social change groups such as the Freedom Riders and their actions.
  • Analyze lyrics of prominent songs of the era and the civil rights movement and extract meaning and value from them through textual analysis.
  • Compare and contrast the music used by the movement with other popular music of the day and recognize both similarities and differences.


The most familiar images of the civil rights era (1955-68) are of the political and legal protests occurring throughout the nation. While students will be most familiar with historic images of the legal battles in the nation’s courts and of public demonstrations, the cause was furthered by other forms of cultural expression. Throughout our history, political and social struggles were accompanied by the music of popular culture. In the example of the civil rights movement, participants often blended the political with the artistic. These expressions often exist in the background; however, this lesson attempts to bring the popular cultural components, specifically music, to the foreground.

Musicians and artists played active roles in spreading the message of leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and artists like Sam Cooke. This lesson focuses on one case study, the story of the Freedom Riders. In the spring of 1961, college students challenged the existing segregation laws in the American South with an assertive yet non-violent strategy. Four hundred black and white students associated with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) planned to ride Greyhound buses through Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, Virginia, and other states to protest illegal segregation in the South. The Freedom Riders employed freedom songs and spirituals as a crucial aspect to their non-violent protest of racial inequality.

American musicians have long used their craft as a means to disseminate ideas, challenge precedents, and call people to action. Thus, song offers unique insight into the meaning behind the spirit of the civil rights movement. Of course, not all music of the early 1960s dwelled upon the political and civil rights demands of black Americans, yet many popular songs of that period delve deep into many issues concerning freedom and equality in our national conversation. “We Shall Overcome,” “Get Your Rights Jack,” and “A Change is Gonna Come” reflect both the hope and frustration behind the movement’s struggles throughout the 1960s. Between President Kennedy’s reluctance to support legal civil rights to the tumultuous protests against the Vietnam War, music served as an outlet and source of courage for many involved.

This lesson first focuses on an examination of the civil rights movement as a whole. Students will look at the various goals of the movement and begin to see music’s place in participants' objectives.  After examining a specific case, that of the Freedom Riders, the lesson encourages them to see the role of music in the aftermath of this protest and subsequently, throughout the civil rights era. It then shifts towards active student participation and engagement with the material, calling for them to form their own analyses and opinions of the songs and their impact and then to conduct oral history interviews. Students will leave this lesson with a better understanding of how music illuminates the quest for civil rights.

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Setting the Stage
  • Begin with a discussion where students define and understand the goals of the civil rights movement and the concept of equal rights.
    • The Freedom Riders website, under the section Issues, contains short essays on aspects of the movement most relevant to the Freedom Rides.
    • This essay from the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize by Bernice Johnson Reagon gives useful framework for music’s meaning in the civil rights movement.
Activity 2. Understanding the Message
  •  Have students analyze the lyrics to a song and analyze the message behind them.

o   Possible songs

o "If I Had a Hammer" – Pete Seeger (1949)

o "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned" – Mahalia Jackson at the March on Washington (1963)

o  "This Little Light of Mine" – Various Artists and Performances (1950s and 1960s)

o  "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" – Various Artists and Performances (1956)

o  "Get Your Rights Jack" – C.O.R.E Freedom Singers (early 1960s)

o  "We Shall Overcome" – Various Artists and Performances (consider Joan Baez's version, 1963)

o  "Blowin' in the Wind" – Bob Dylan (1963)

o  "A Change is Gonna Come" – Sam Cooke (1964)

o "Here's to the State of Mississippi" – Phil Ochs (1964)

o  "Nowhere to Run" – Martha and the Vandellas (1965)

o  "Rescue Me" – Fontella Bass (1965)

o  "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free" – Nina Simone (1967)

  • Next, have students rank them according to their relevance to civil rights and social justice.

o   Several resources can provide songs such as the Smithsonian Folkways collections on songs by the C.O.R.E Freedom Singers and songs by the Freedom Riders, and the PBS website for the Eyes on the Prize documentary

o   A more focused version of this activity could center attention on a specific and foundational song, such as the anthemic freedom song "We Shall Overcome."

o   In what ways did protesters and civil rights advocates utilize this song?

o   What types of meaning and emotion could be extracted from the lyrics and the performance of the song?

o   Where did the song actively appear in protests of the early 1960s?

o   See Our Documents to view a March on Washington brochure and analyze the context surrounding the song and the march.

o   Then have each student present their findings and chosen songs (via YouTube, for example).

Activity 3. The Use of Music in the Freedom Rides
  •  As Freedom Rider James Farmer explained, “the prison officials wanted us to stop singing, because they were afraid our spirit would become contagious and the other prisoners would become Freedom Riders as a result of our singing”. This activity will further explore the link between song and motivation. Find/read primary documents from the Freedom Riders and examine the use of song as a motivational force. Apply the streaming clips from the NEH and PBS-sponsored documentary on the Freedom Riders.

o   How did the anthems of the movement comfort or invigorate the participants? Which songs or group of lyrics were chosen?

o  View letters written between jailed Freedom Riders as a way to understand their place in confinement. Additionally, these Library of Congress-hosted photographs of Freedom Ride bus stations and events can help illustrate the harsh tone and environment around their project.

o  The PBS documentary site Eyes on the Prize provides insight into the role of music for the Freedom Riders.

o   Use the documentary Eyes on the Prize to also analyze the use of the song "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round." How does this song serve as an example of music as a tool that aided the Freedom Riders' cause? 

o   How else did the Jim Crow era further protest music in the 1960s? For this, utilize the NEH-sponsored documentary on Jim Crow in the South.

o  What was the role of spirituals in both the Freedom Riders mission and in the greater use of music in the civil rights campaign.

o  To examine the use of spirituals as a tool, examine this clip discussing the role of spirituals from the PBS Freedom Riders documentary.

o  Use the EDSITEment lesson plan on the historic role of spirituals in African American history to gain more context and insight. 

o  This list of spirituals, work songs, and ballads from the Library of Congress may be a useful resource.

o  What role did "We Shall Overcome" play in the Freedom Rider's campaign?  

Activity 4. Seeing and Hearing the Message
  • The students can compare and contrast a prominent document or speech to important songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind" (1963), "Get Your Rights Jack" (1963), or "A Change is Gonna Come" (1964) (clips available through the Smithsonian's Folkways library). Ask them to examine if these prominent events and documents reflected the wants and needs of the participants.

o   Have student consult Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech.  How did Sam Cooke’s song “A Change is Gonna Come” reflect the tone and mission of Dr. King's "dream"?


Activity 5. Examining the Popular Music Landscape
  • Have students examine the top-selling songs from the early 1960s (specific years are the choice of the instructor).  Have each student pick two or more songs and explain the connection (or lack thereof) to the civil rights movement and the racial politics of the day using the provided worksheet.

o   Examples of top songs of 1961 (the year the Freedom Rides campaign began)

o   "At Last" – Etta James

o  "Are You Lonesome Tonight" – Elvis Presley

o  "Blue Moon" – The Marcels

o  "Crazy" – Patsy Cline

o  "Cryin'" – Roy Orbison

o  "Hello Mary Lou" – Ricky Nelson

o  "Let's Twist Again" – Chubby Checker

o  "Please Mr. Postman" – The Marvelettes

o  "Runaway" – Del Shannon

o  "Running Scared" – Roy Orbison

o  "Shop Around" – The Miracles

o  "Travelin' Man" – Ricky Nelson

o  "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" – The Shirelles

o   For Example:

o  The early 1960s saw the beginnings of pop ensembles later known as girl groups. Characterized by stylishly presented all-female singers with glossy production such as The Shirelles, The Ronettes, and later The Supremes, girl groups created a distinct sound of youthful and innocent love songs. Juxtapose the sound of the early girl group phase with the somber and harsh lyrics of "Strange Fruit." Instructors can utilize this NPR podcast concerning Billie Holiday's use of the last song and this additional podcast providing context around the song and lynching.    

o   This PBS film Strange Fruit may prove useful for its timeline overview of various protest music in American history.

Activity 6. Doing Oral History in Your Community
  • Have the students conduct interviews with parents, relatives and neighbors about what songs they remember from the civil rights era and how this music reflected the times.

o   The interview should stem from the interview activity worksheet, which helps students develop oral history skills.

o   Have students present their findings and play their song via YouTube, NPR Podcast, or Smithsonian Folkways streaming media pages to the class.


Instructors should grade students on

  • Their assessment of the civil rights movement
  • Their ability to demonstrate understanding of the role of popular culture in political and social movements
  • Their ability to process and analyze primary sources

Students should develop a better understanding of and define concepts of non-violent protest               

Students should be able to produce a written assessment on their oral history experience. In addition to a written component, the student’s should be evaluated in their presentation to the class.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Instruments/sound
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Modern World (1500 CE-Present)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Culture
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Music
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Reform
  • Analysis
  • Auditory analysis
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Debate
  • Discussion
  • Essay writing
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Interview/survey skills
  • Musical analysis
  • Online research
  • Oral Communication
  • Oral presentation skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • Using secondary sources
  • Visual analysis


Activity Worksheets

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