How Jazz Helped Fuel the 1960s Civil Rights Movement

Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em stab us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em tar and feather us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

—Charles Mingus, “Fables of Faubus”

In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus decided that integration—mandated three years earlier by Brown v. Board of Ed.—constituted such a state of emergency that he mobilized the National Guard to prevent nine black students from going to school. An outraged Charles Mingus responded with the lyrics to “Fables of Faubus,” a composition that first appeared on his celebrated Mingus Ah Um in 1959.

Those who know the album may be puzzled—there are no lyrics on that recording. Columbia Records, notes Michael Verity, found them “so incendiary that they refused to allow them to be recorded.” Mingus re-recorded the song the following year for Candid Records, “lyrics and all, on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.” The irascible bassist and bandleader’s words “offer some of the most blatant and harshest critiques of Jim Crow attitudes in all of jazz activism.”

Mingus’ experience with Columbia shows the line most jazz artists had to walk in the early years of the Civil Rights movement. Several of Mingus’ elders, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, refrained from making public statements about racial injustice, for which they were later harshly criticized.




But between Mingus’ two versions of “Fables of Faubus,” jazz radically broke with older traditions that catered to and depended on white audiences. “’If you don’t like it, don’t listen,’ was the attitude,” as Amiri Baraka wrote in 1962.

Musicians turned inward: they played for each other and for their communities, invented new languages to confound jazz appropriators and carry the music forward on its own terms. Candid Records owner Nat Hentoff, longtime Village Voice jazz critic and columnist, not only issued Mingus’ vocal Faubus protest, but also that same year Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, which featured a cover photo of a lunch counter protest and performances from his then-wife, singer and activist Abbey Lincoln.

Roach recorded two other albums with prominent Civil Rights themes, Speak Brother Speak in 1962 and Lift Every Voice and Sing in 1971. Jazz’s turn toward the movement was in full swing as the 60s dawned. “Nina Simone sang the incendiary ‘Mississippi Goddam,’” writes KCRW’s Tom Schnabel, “Coltrane performed a sad dirge, ‘Alabama’ to mourn the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing in 1963. Sonny Rollins recorded The Freedom Suite for Riverside Records as a declaration of musical and racial freedom.”

Every Civil Rights generation up to the present has had its songs of sorrow, anger, and celebration. Where gospel guided the early marchers, jazz musicians of the 1960s took it upon themselves to score the movement. Though he didn’t much like to talk about it in interviews, “Coltrane was deeply involved in the civil rights movement,” writes Blank on Blank, “and shared many of Malcolm X’s views on black consciousness and Pan-Africanism, which he incorporated into his music.”

Jazz clubs even became spaces for organizing:

In 1963, CORE—Congress of Racial Equality—organized two benefit shows at the Five Spot Café, [featuring] a host of prominent musicians and music journalists.

In the wake of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington and with the church bombing in Birmingham that killed 4 little girls only the month before, the benefit attracted a host of musicians like Ben Webster, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims in support of the organization, which, along with the NAACP and SNCC, was one of the leading civil rights groups at the time.

The new jazz, hot or cool, became more deeply expressive of musicians’ individual personalities, and thus of their whole political, social, and spiritual selves. This was no small thing; jazz may have been an American invention, but it was an international phenomenon. Artists in the 60s carried the struggle abroad with music and activism. After a wave of brutal bombings, murders, and beatings, “there were no more sidelines,” writes Ashawnta Jackson at JSTOR Daily. “Jazz musicians, like any other American, had the duty to speak to the world around them.” And the world listened.

The first Berlin Jazz Festival, held in 1964, was introduced with an address by Martin Luther King, Jr. (who did not attend in person). “Jazz is exported to the world,” King wrote, and “much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.” Music still plays the same role in today’s struggles. It’s a different sound now, but you’ll still hear Mingus’ verses in the streets, against more waves of hatred and brute force:

Boo! Nazi Fascist supremacists
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan)

Related Content:

John Coltrane Talks About the Sacred Meaning of Music in the Human Experience: Listen to One of His Final Interviews (1966)

Martin Luther King Jr. Explains the Importance of Jazz: Hear the Speech He Gave at the First Berlin Jazz Festival (1964)

Nina Simone’s Live Performances of Her Poignant Civil Rights Protest Songs

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • alan fair says:

    Jazz has long been an expression of freedom both aesthetically and politically and it is no different now. Listen to the music of Moor Mother and Damon Locks in the U.S. and Maisha, Shabaka & The Ancestors in the U.K.plus many, many more. The very foundation of jazz was a protest and has remained so. I’m not sure you are right about Armstrong and Ellington. Armstrong was always outspoken about racism in America and the Duke’s work is testament to his political outrage at racism and his celebration of blackness.

  • Walter Hayley says:

    I realize there is inevitably going to be omissions, but surely Archie Shepp should have drawn mention…

  • Craig pointes says:

    If you don’t shout your thoughts out you get left out. Say the word be hesrd. You deserve that. If they do not want to listen, turn off the tunes. We win you lose. The sound is the word.

  • Tom Reney says:

    Louis Armstrong made a bold, unequivocal statement of condemnation of President Eisenhower for his reluctance to send federal troops to Little Rock in 1957. Armstrong’s threat to cancel his goodwill tour of the Soviet Union made headlines across the globe, and earned the trumpeter criticism in the press and elsewhere.

    Duke Ellington composed “King Fit the Battle of Alabam” in 1963, the same year that he introduced his musical “My People.” It’s true that he was criticized for not being more outspoken on behalf of the Movement, but his tribute to Dr. King was one of numerous works he wrote that underscored his career-long celebration of African American history and culture.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Thank you for these corrections, Tom. Both did speak out later in their careers.

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