10 Classic Songs About Racism and Civil Rights

Oldies About the Civil Rights Struggle of African-Americans

Billie Holiday
Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Racism in oldies music has been a recurring theme ever since the blues was born. Found as a means for expression for their anguish and strife, musicians took to their craft to pen powerful ballads about the real devastation experienced because of racism in 20th century America.

The R&B and pop songs about racism in the following list actually did quite a bit of integrating on their own, spreading to white audiences while spreading their message, educating the masses on the vast history of the struggle for African-Americans to assimilate and also to thrive. This struggle has been a long, hard, often angry but sometimes hopeful one, culminating in the inauguration of Barack Obama as America's first black President, a watershed moment for a country whose history is interwoven with white-on-black racism. 

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"Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" began as a poem written (and later set to music) by a Jewish man horrified at photos of lynchings in the American South. So moving that listeners often broke down in tears after hearing it — including the famed jazz herself — the ballad version took Holiday leaving her record label to get it produced. 

The original version had been used in protests in New York City in the early 1930s, but In 1939, Holiday released her version to great critical acclaim (and many, many tears). It went on to become her show-closer and her signature song.

The lyrical metaphor, while powerful, did not filter the ugliness of the images it conjured. With vivid descriptions of "blood on the leaves and blood at the root" and "black bodies swinging in the southern breeze" in the lyrics, it was as unforgiving as it was accurate of conditions for African-Americans at the turn of the century. 

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"Living for the City" by Stevie Wonder


Stevie Wonder is known for his positivity, but his epic 1973 soul single "Living For The City" — featuring at least four different documentary-sized slices of black urban life tied together by Wonder's narration and a gospel chorus — sounded like the revolution was just at the nation's doorstep.

This track was acclaimed as one of the first soul numbers to specifically cover systemic racism in its lyrics. Interestingly, it is also one of the first to use sounds of the street like car horns, sirens, and voices chattering as part of the backing instrumentation.

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"A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke


Much has been made about the fact that this was Cooke's last single before his very untimely and equally suspicious death at the age of 33 in 1964. Yet this was really just the b-side to "Shake," which couldn't have offended anyone not already put off by rock and roll. After hearing Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind," a protest song largely about war, Cooke decided a civil-rights version was needed. Hence this soaring secular spiritual, which many say contains his best non-gospel vocal performance. And as evidenced by the rarely-heard third verse, Sam was dealing with even more dangerous change than Barack Obama's: "I go to the movies, and I go downtown / Somebody keep telling me, 'Don't hang around.'"

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"We're a Winner" by The Impressions

Perhaps the ultimate black self-determination anthem (which is not quite the same thing as a "black power" anthem), this 1967 R&B smash, "We're A Winner," features legendary vocalist Curtis Mayfield crying out for the unification of his people. 

This song, studio crowd noises and all, makes upward mobility sound like the ultimate party. The lyrics are hopeful, yet pointed. When Curtis exhorts his people to "Keep on pushing like your leaders tell you to," he isn't talking about Nixon. The odd but equally pointed syntax of the title also suggests that African-Americans can and should move as one.

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"Is It Because I'm Black" by Syl Johnson

It's no wonder this rare-groove classic has been sampled by endless numbers of hip-hop artists, finding as it does the perfect mix of street cred, urban blues, crawling funk, damaged optimism, and racial awareness.

"I wanna be somebody so bad," Syl repeatedly wails over the nearly eight-minute length of the track. He also testifies, "if you're half-white, light, brown-skinned, or high-yellow, you're still black, so we all got to stick together," marking yet another call for unity of all those oppressed by the lone race at the top: the white people. More of an extended ad-lib than a song, it still resonates as one long, anguished cry from the heart of an oppressed people.

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"Black Pearl" by Sonny Charles and The Checkmates, Ltd.

Written by two white people and produced by a third, this was nevertheless a pivotal anthem for the times, the very last burst of soul brilliance from Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" before it wandered off to wait on Beatles hand and foot.

Almost holy in its reverence of the black female, it's still a product of its time: Sonny wanted to "put you up where you belong," which is not exactly what the feminists wanted. Still, couched in the dynamics of a romantic relationship, Charles is making a bold pledge: I don't love you because you're pretty. "You'll never win a beauty pageant, no they won't pick you," he sings, "but you're my Miss America." It's not because she's ugly.

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"Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud" by James Brown

By 1968, The Godfather of Soul James Brown was as influential a fixture in black America as Dr. King or Malcolm X had ever been. When Brown talked (or sang, or wailed), people listened.

Backed by a call-and-response chorus of children, Butane James made sure to fan the flames of self-respect with this slab of funk demanding "a chance to do things for ourself."

As always with Brown, there weren't many words, but he made the most of every single one, declaring "We'd rather die on our feet than be livin' on our knees." 

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"Message From a Black Man" by The Temptations

Perhaps in line with their poppy, non-political image, Motown records originally relegated this direct message to the public to an album track (rather than a single), nevertheless black radio played "Message From a Black Man" by The Temptations regularly after its release on "Puzzle People" in 1969. 

The message is quite direct with lyrics like "the laws of society were made for both you and me" and "because of my color I struggle to be free," addressing the racial inequality in America against a funky back beat. They also harken back to James Brown's hit of the year before with a lyrical reference, singing "I'm black and I'm proud." 

"No matter how hard you try you can't stop me now" is repeated multiple times and served as an anthem for protests mounting in the country at the time. 

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"Chocolate City" by Parliament

You expect the deep, fat funk from George Clinton, and the occasional social commentary — he was, after all, born of psychedelia and Sixties awareness — but you don't expect prophecy, necessarily. That's exactly what happened with Parliament's "Chocolate City." 

Starting the jazzy number of with "They still call it the White House, but that's a temporary condition, too," is actually in reference to African-Americans becoming the majority in Washington, DC, after white residents took to the quieter, more expensive suburbs. Still, it could be interpreted today as a premonition for Obama's inauguration 35 years later. 

A roll call of cities becoming increasingly black, this extended jam also imagines a whole cabinet of black heroes, and concludes, "You don't need the bullet when you got the ballot." Apparently not.

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"Don't Call Me N*****, Whitey" by Sly and the Family Stone

This one-verse song "Don't Call Me N*****, Whitey" directly addressed the stalemate in racial relations at the time. By structuring the main repeated titular refrain of the song as a call and response and only including one verse to speak of, the track serves a representative slice of Sly's masterful, forward-thinking psychedelic funk.

But when you have a title and a chorus like that, you're gonna get your point across pretty quickly. More of a sad commentary on racism than an attempt to rile up either side, this long, hypnotic workout — punctuated with horns like long, shocked exclamation points — laments the standoff rather than stumping for any sort of solution. Which makes perfect sense considering the positive, intelligent, multiracial and pansexual Sly and the Family Stone always led by example.