A Call to Action: Protest Songs and the Anti-lynching Movement

Protest songs have long history in the United States. Arguably some of the first were written and sung by slaves during the 18th and 19th centuries where spirituals like “Go Down Moses” illustrated the relationship between African-American slaves and their slave masters. Continually, into the 20th century, songs by groups such as the Hutchinson Family Singers called for women’s rights and abolitionism. From the era of The Great Depression through Vietnam, and into the Anti-Establishment message of punk and hip-hop in the 80’s and 90’s, protest songs have inspired action by expressing a message of freedom, peace, and justice at times when these ideals weren’t evident in the United States.

A period where this was most clear was during the time that “Jim Crow” laws allowed for government-sanctioned racism and segregation in the United States. In addition to separating blacks and whites in public spaces, these laws protected a system of formal and informal oppression wherein black people were made inferior to their white counterparts. Those who broke, or were suspected of breaking, laws or violating social norms were subject to harsh punishment, not only in the hands of the police, but also from everyday white men and women.


One of the most gruesome ways such racist rules were enforced was through lynching. The victims of these public displays were subject to beatings, shootings, burnings, hangings, and even dismemberment.  Eventually, it was an image of one of these murders (left) that inspired one of the ultimate civil rights protest songs, Strange Fruit. Written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, it was sung by Billie Holiday in the late 1930’s. The graphic lyrics and haunting melody paint a vivid picture of beaten bodies hanging from trees. Their disfigured faces and rotten smell standing in contrast to an otherwise picturesque, southern pastoral scene. In just three short verses, Meeropol and Holiday are able to accurately depict the brutality of lynching, and expose the harsh reality of racism in America.

Like other protest songs throughout history, Billie Holiday’s version of Strange Fruit helped to inspire people to stand up and fight for a cause that they believed in.  Although the anti-lynching movement began in the late 19th century, it gained national attention in 1918 when Congressman Leonidas Dyer of Missouri introduced a bill which would “assure to persons within the jurisdiction of every State the equal protection of the laws, and to punish the crime of lynching” [1]. The bill quickly received support from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and eventually large groups of African-Americans were speaking out in favor of the proposed legislation.

Two people who stood out among this group were Mary B. Talbert and Ida B. Wells. TalbertCover_Southern_horrors was a well-known activist in both the civil rights and suffragist movements. In 1922 with the support of the NAACP she founded The Anti-Lynching Crusaders, a woman’s group focused on raising   money in support of the Dyer bill, and working to prevent lynching generally. Wells was also an outspoken figure in favor of both civil rights and women’s suffrage. As a journalist she condemned lynching in her newspapers, Free Speech and Headlight, and documented lynching to illustrate how it was used to punish blacks who competed with whites. As a result of her protests, her newspaper office was burned down by rioters and she often received death threats.  

For decades these women, and many others, worked to get the Dyer bill voted into law. Although the initiative ultimately failed, supporters still succeeded in bringing attention to the anti-lynching cause. Moreover, much of the money raised by Talbert was donated to the NAACP and used in their sponsorship of another bill proposed in 1934 [2]. As voices of the movement, Wells and Talbert became an inspiration in their own right with Strange Fruit as their rallying cry.

In many ways, protest music is a call to action. It inspires people to speak up against injustice and fight for social change, often risking their safety or even their lives. When it was written, Strange Fruit symbolized the brutality and racism that existed in America during the time, but in many ways it is still relevant today. Racially motivated murders still occur, African-American’s are still incarcerated in large numbers, and urban housing segregation is still very much a problem. Although perhaps not the first protest song, Strange Fruit’s legacy has shown it to be one of the most enduring.


[1] NAACP, NAACP History: Anti-Lynching Bill (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 2009)  http://www.naacp.org/pages/naacp-history-anti-lynching-bill, accessed February, 2016.

[2] Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-First Century (Oxford University Press, 2009) 80.

16 thoughts on “A Call to Action: Protest Songs and the Anti-lynching Movement

  1. Katilin, I found it really interesting on your take of protest songs as a call to action, rather than solely a reaction to injustice. Strange Fruit is so haunting that I remember exactly where I was when I first heard it. However, after the first impression, one can really understand how it become a central key in spurring social change and helping pass legislation. I wonder what songs today will be regarded by historians as affecting such social movement?

    1. That’s an interesting question, Mikaela. Sometimes it seems like today’s popular music doesn’t have the depth of older songs, but I’m sure over the years the truly meaningful music is what people remember (and the Justin Bieber songs fade away, hopefully). This makes me think of Beyoncé’s Superbowl halftime show and her new release, “Formation.” She made a visual connection to the Black Panther movement and asserted black identity, outraging many. Some critics said that a sports event was no place for politics, but I think there’s more at play.

      For more, read: http://bittergertrude.com/2016/02/08/white-people-shut-up-about-beyonce/

      1. Love your comment Kate! I’ve been obsessing over the conversation over Beyonce and her halftime show and recent music video. I agree that there’s much more at play than simply arguing that the Super Bowl is no place for politics. I think it’s rather admirable that public figures like Beyonce are making statements about their unapologetic blackness, especially because they have to opportunity to influence so many people.

    2. I wonder what role Mackelmore and Ryan Lewis’s new collaborative song, “White Privilege II,” will have on current issues. When it first came out, it received a lot of attention from the media. Could that be considered a protest song? A call to action? Or is it just critical of current social issues?

  2. Without realizing it, I actually experienced the “Blossom” piece that was part of our preparation for discussion this week. It is at the Brooklyn Museum, currently, which I visited last winter. I remember being taken with the piece, but I did not understand the full extent of it until today. “Strange Fruit” plays as a piano arrangement accompanying the visual aspect of the work. Unfortunately, at the time, I don’t believe that I recognized the song, nor saw a racial implication in the piece at all. This instance shows me a bit about white privilege, and how I can look at any tree, even one set in a thought-provoking context, and the last thing I would think of is how that tree could have been implicated in lynching. I wish that the lyrics of the song had been playing as I stood there, because clearly they are powerful and important in spreading awareness of the particular dark history that trees have played in racial struggles.

    1. Julia, you bring up an interesting point about perception and privilege. In the song, there is a line about the “pastoral south” that reminds me of this as well. There is definitely privilege in romanticizing the south. For the people who lived through the violence that occurred in the south around this time, it is impossible to separate the location from its sinister past. However, it is much easier for those of us who have not experienced it to overlook this. I think that is why art and protest songs that deal with topics such as lynching are so important: they serve to highlight violence that was covered up and erased for so long so that it cannot be ignored.

  3. Music has a way of touching souls in a unique way and inciting emotions. Protest songs as a call to action have certainly been around for a while, and I found your points and comments to be enlightening and thought-provoking. They can express the artists’ pain, anger, and frustration that is most likely being felt by others in a way that can incite change. I think museums should definitely be up to date on how the public is currently responding to issues, both in their own community and on much larger scales. How can museums integrate these aspects of history and current issues into their exhibits, programming, and education for the betterment of the public?

    1. Sarah, I completely agree with your assessment on the power of music. Additionally, music is an excellent way to bring people together, as almost every culture has some form of music. Museums need to recognize the power and ability music has to bring people together and use it to start dialogue on important issues. Using protest songs to make connections between the racial issues of the past and the issues of today, would be a great way to get people talking about these issues.

  4. The idea of protest songs, particularly in the case of “Strange Fruit,” serves to make me consider all the more the social context of the period in which they were written and how significant a statement they are as a result. Listening to Holiday, I find the song to be haunting, but to think how it must have been to perform this at that time. I remember reading that Holiday was terrified at the prospect of first performing this in public given the real fear of retaliation, but pushed through when considering the song’s important message. This song truly reflects the ability of music to encompass so many aspects of large-scale issues, and it makes since that this song, representing an element of arguably the most significant social issue of the century, was selected by TIME as the “Song of the Century.” I think museums, in exploring music and protest longs, should look at their role across a wide variety of issues and look to explore how they bring so many different sides into one, and how they can be the most profound and unprecedented statement on these issues as a result.

    1. In working on a exhibit about peace and the Nobel Peace Prize a mash up of songs and spoken word was put together to play throughout the exhibit. The songs were all protest songs but each one had an element of peace. The pieces ranged, and while I don’t remember the names of the pieces, I know that even though the songs talked about throwing off the injustices of the world they also held the idea of a peaceful environment in which all people lived together. Music has a powerful ability to set the mod and express ideas, even without words. It is international and a song about one subject have many different messages to different people. People also turn to music when trying to understand complicated issues. Music is a sensory experience that allows us to focus and explore issues in a safe and creative way.

  5. Kaitlin, I loved your blog and the connections you made between music and the anti-lynching movement. I was completely unaware of the Dyer bill and the women who worked to try to get it passed. I wonder how museums can use music to inspire change or create movement?

  6. I really loved how you incorporated the female activists in your analysis of the anti-lynching campaigns. Ida B. Wells and Mary B. Talbert are two women who I have not previously studied, but it is so important for all members of society to speak out against injustice. These two women can be role models for women of the time to get involved, and women today to have woman activists to look up too. Even though the Dyer bill was unsuccessful the attention Wells brought to it with her newspaper ultimately helped society because it brought awareness to the huge issue of lynching. Even in the midst of threats and attacks she held her ground for what she knew was right, and that is admirable.

  7. Kaitlyn, this is a great post! You bought up many different issues and tied them nicely together without side research. I like how you brought out the history of two relatively unknown activists and their impact on the movement. I feel that we often over look the hard work of individuals who went to great lengths to change a culture only to end up being lost in the textbook. Also, i like how you brought up the NAACP and their early movements since i feel that people think of them in the Civil Right era and not look at their achievements before that time.Overall, it is a great addition to the conversation on the racial issues we still combat today.

  8. This was a very interesting read! Protest occurs in all forms and I agree that music can be one of the most powerful, due in part, to the universal appeal music has for human beings. All over the world, groups call to action through song (one that comes to mind for me is Pussy Riot fighting for women’s and LGBTQ rights in Russia). It would be interesting to see if the protest songs of the ante-and post-bellum era have influenced similar musical protests around the world. Perhaps, or perhaps others have come to their own conclusion that music is a powerful tool for bringing attention to social issues and then calling for action to remedy these issues.

  9. This makes me think a lot about classic hip-hop. A lot of Public Enemy songs were about issues the group’s members had seen in society. Racism in Hollywood, racist policing, emergency services not responding to poor black neighborhoods, etc. It’s a great way to draw people in. Even when I was way more socially clueless than I am now, it woke me up to a lot of societal problems that still exist 25 years after those songs were written.

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