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54 Strong: Women, Music and Civil Rights

On the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, our group of 54 Strong followed a light all the way to Marion, Alabama to learn more about the roles and power of women in the music of the Civil Rights Movement. In that small southern town, we had the privilege of meeting up with Billie Jean Young -- famed actor, writer and McCarther Fellow who enlightened our group on why music was so central to the success of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Well, you know, music is used and was used in the Civil Rights Movement as a way to quell fear. It’s almost a character in any story you have to tell because when things were tight in the Movement and people were worried about their safety, the best thing to do is to start a song.”

Billie Jean Young is also well known for her one-woman show dedicated to honoring the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, a former Mississippi sharecropper turned civil rights activist and organizer of the 1964 Freedom Summer Project. We learned that Fannie Lou Hamer was an inspiration to her fellow civil rights foot soldiers and frequently leaned on music to soothe her own soul and to inspire others around her.

This Little Light of Mine was a favorite song of hers. And I think, you know, it told the truth about what she was about. She was saying to people, ‘You may not have much, but you can take that little light that you do have and just let it go – just spread it.’"

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine -- This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine -- This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine -- Let it shine, Let it shine, Let it shine.

On another stop on our civil rights pilgrimage we met with Carolyn McKinstry who we featured in our second installment here on UPR. McKinstry is a minister dedicated to working on racial reconciliation in the south and was a survivor of a bomb blast in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. We asked her about the relationship between women, music, and civil rights and she immediately gravitated to one of her favorite female singers of the time.

“Mahalia Jackson was one of my favorites and I remember reading several times that when Dr. King was speaking somewhere, he would always have a favorite song for her to sing at that occasion. In those days we sang the hymns, and the hymns are extractions of the Bible and so we felt really good about what we were hearing ... Music is an important aspect. I felt like it was a spiritual motivator for King. It was his way of preparation, of getting himself ready for whatever he was going to encounter.”


The voices of women from the Civil Rights Movement of yesterday inform those of the powerful women in music today. On our pilgrimage, we were lucky to share the bus with Chloe Copoloff, a budding and talented young musician from Bellevue College. Copoloff represents a new generation of young artists involved in civil rights.

“My ultimate goal with my music is to make connections with other people. Just like those in the Civil Rights Movement, I want to use my songs to move people -- to bring people together -- for a better cause.”

Before the pilgrimage began, Chloe, at age 18, decided to write a song for the group of 54 Strong. The song, titled Take My Hand, quickly became a favorite throughout the group and the pilgrimage.