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” . 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. Talbert 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 . 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.
 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.
 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.