{{ credit }}

From the Heart of a Movement

Music and Civil Rights

With its power to unite, music anchored the Civil Rights Movement to freedom struggles of the past while pointing toward a more just future.

Perhaps more than any other art, music holds the power to bring people together—to unite us. The act of making music, or even just listening, creates a shared sense of time and space that transcends any one person. Add a profound underlying message, and music’s binding effect is increased many times over. This season, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra harnesses music’s special power by marking the sixtieth anniversary of major touchstones in the Civil Rights Movement with opportunities for intense reflection on the relationships between music, social activism, and freedom. What is the sound of justice for all?  

In June 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. led a march known as the Walk to Freedom on a route beginning southeast of Orchestra Hall on Woodward Avenue and continuing to Cobo Arena, now Huntington Place. Attended by well over 100,000 participants, this march was the largest civil rights demonstration to date and would only be surpassed two months later by its more famous cousin, the March on Washington. Song penetrated every corner of both events. Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, was so intent on sharing Dr. King’s message in Detroit that the two men agreed to share royalties from a recording of his speech with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His speaking voice, of course, bore its own musicality, which Gordy intuitively perceived.  

While music might hold the sounds of justice, the sounds of injustice can come in the form of bombs and bullets. Less than a month after the March on Washington, members of the Ku Klux Klan set off sticks of dynamite at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four African American girls—Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Rosamond Robertson, and Cynthia Dionne Wesley—and injuring well over a dozen other people. In the chaotic immediate aftermath, two more young African American men were shot—Johnny Robinson by police and Virgil Ware by a white teenager seething after attending a white supremacist rally. Joan Baez’s exhortation at the March on Washington that “we shall overcome someday” seemed like a far-off dream.  

For deeper engagement with these themes, the DSO has chosen two major works that articulate the pain and hope animating the Civil Rights Movement: Margaret Bonds’s Montgomery Variations (1964) and a new commission by Dr. James Lee III titled Shades of Unbroken Dreams (2023). Each work represents a bookend to the decades between the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the ongoing struggles for equality in this country today. To help contextualize these works, the DSO hosted me, a historian of American orchestras, in conversation with Dr. Lee himself and Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle, University Distinguished Professor of Music at Miami University and a specialist in music of the Civil Rights Movement and the works of Margaret Bonds.  

Dr. Kernodle described the Civil Rights Movement as a continuous series of waves stretching from the 1950s and the Brown v. Board of Education decision through to the 1980s, when federal, state, and local governments chipped away at earlier civil rights legislation. The movement during its early period focused largely on judicial, legislative, and economic strategies but experienced a seismic shift in the early 1960s as younger activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and, especially, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) took more prominent leadership roles. Rather than seeking abstract victories on paper, these activists pioneered direct action strategies of embodied nonviolent resistance like sit-ins, pray-ins, and marches. “Music,” Dr. Kernodle explained, “was an integral component of this nonviolent resistance.” With its power to unite, music anchored the Civil Rights Movement to freedom struggles of the past while pointing toward a more just future.  

Alt tag for image

It was in the early 1960s, Dr. Kernodle noted, that freedom songs, gospel songs, and even spirituals—a much older repertoire dating to the period of enslavement before the Civil War—became a centerpiece in movement activities. At the same time, the movement’s musical tapestry became more expansive by cutting across racial, gender, and class lines as well as musical categories. Joan Baez’s performance of “We Shall Overcome” at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington is one famous example of this expansion, but Kernodle believes that we can hear musical invocations of the movement in repertoire well outside gospel and folk standards, including jazz albums like Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s We Insist! (1961) and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (1964).  

We can also hear the movement in Margaret Bonds’s Montgomery Variations. Bonds (1913–1972) grew up in what Dr. Kernodle called a “Chicago ecosystem rooted in civic engagement, Black intellectual activity—and activism.” At the same time, her mother and father were also musicians and prioritized that dimension of Margaret’s education after she showed extraordinary aptitude from a young age. With dreams of becoming a concert pianist, she attended Northwestern University in nearby Evanston and became the first African American woman to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music from that institution. Although Bonds had soloed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at only 20 years old, her family’s immersion in civic life nudged her to pursue composition, which became a calling. 

By the time she started writing Montgomery Variations in 1963, Bonds had become embedded in New York City’s radical Black intellectual and artistic scenes, which included the authors Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, as well as commercial musicians like Nina Simone and Odetta. Each of these figures used their art as a medium for social activism, and while we don’t intuitively place classical artists at the center of civil rights activity in the 1960s—save, perhaps, the great contralto Marian Anderson—Margaret Bonds certainly was. Montgomery Variations expanded the sonic tapestry of the movement in unique directions. The foundation of the piece is a spiritual called “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” a central song of the movement calling for the endurance of faith and hope in the face of trial. “She uses it as the basis of this orchestral piece,” Kernodle explained, “with each of these variations, as I see it, offering a lens into the ethos and the activities of the movement,” which Bonds experienced firsthand in Montgomery, Alabama during a tour in 1963.  

“The first three variations,” Kernodle continued, “convey the spirit of radicalism and defiance that really underscored the beginning of this wave in the movement.” The spiritual rings out “resiliently” in the opening and is followed by two variations that introduce the physicality of praying in church and marching for freedom. By the fourth and fifth sections, the mood shifts to the darker side of the Movement as it met violent resistance in lynchings and, specifically, the Baptist church bombings. This variation serves as a historical marker, Kernodle explained, to sear that moment in the nation’s history into permanent memory. Returning to the religiosity of the opening, the piece closes with a serene prayer and benediction foregrounding the strings with eyes metaphorically pointed to the heavens and arms outstretched to receive love and healing.  

Alt tag for image

Much like Montgomery Variations, Lee’s Shades of Unbroken Dreams pulls listeners into the historical moment of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963, but through different means altogether. Where Bonds drew structural inspiration from a freedom song and the variation techniques of J.S. Bach, Lee pulls directly from the speech melodies and rhythms heard in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—the same musical traits that attracted Berry Gordy at the Walk to Freedom—and the classical concerto, a genre for orchestra and instrumental soloist, heard in its world premiere with the DSO by Alexandra Dariescu. The use of the concerto form is essential to the piece, Lee explained, because the piano soloist functions as a visible leader but always with the orchestra’s companionship and at times fully inside the group. Lee hopes that this imagery enables the piece to reach the “inner soul” of every individual.  

Each of the movements draws from specific moments in King’s speech. The first contains the most recognizable phrase, “I have a dream,” which becomes a four-note unit that appears in various shapes first in the strings, but later in the solo piano and throughout the orchestra. The phrase “100 years later”—King’s opening remark about how freedom has remained elusive since the Emancipation Proclamation—emerges later in the movement and melds into a section highlighting the soloist alone. The second and third movements are connected without pause but have very distinct personalities. The second pulls from King’s references to biblical imagery with invocations of the shofar (an ancient Hebrew horn used for religious purposes), prayer, and unity. The final movement presents a sharp contrast with the dynamism of the words “Free at last!” and “Let freedom ring!”—hopeful nods to the future in King’s dream.  

Lee remarked that the title of his piece, Shades of Unbroken Dreams, should remind listeners that the work of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement is not done—that old and new challenges alike continue to marginalize, from police brutality and lack of access for disabled people, to inequitable pay and barriers to education. These are the “shades” of the dream that has remained unbroken in the United States and the wider world since the beginning of struggles for freedom.  

Between these two pieces, the DSO is making a clear statement that music, even classical music, can shape our lives, transform us, and even transform our wider communities. Music has a mysterious power, the power to unite us, and if we listen carefully, we might find ourselves hearing the sounds of justice for all.  

— Doug Shadle

You can hear Lee’s Shades of Unbroken Dreams and Bonds’s Montgomery Variations performed by your Detroit Symphony Orchestra on French Passions & Enduring Dreams from November 9-11 and Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony from December 7-9.

In Conversation: Musical Voices of the Civil Rights Movement

French Passions & Enduring Dreams

Celebrated French conductor Fabien Gabel leads orchestral showstoppers direct from France, plus a world premiere by Michigan-born composer James Lee III

Buy Tickets


Hear this work on a program with music by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff conducted by Music Director Jader Bignamini