Being in the Movement meant facing the possibility of going to jail. In the Deep South, jail could be a death sentence for Black people. But singing was a way to cut through the terror of being alone and isolated and feeling like anything could happen to you. “When we were in jail, that’s the only thing that comforted us was the songs,” Bettie Mae Fikes remembered. “It was the spirit of the song.”
Hollis Watkins, Worth Long & Charlie Cobb “They Didn’t Want Us Singing in Jail”
During the Nashville sit-ins, Candie Carawan and other students sang religious songs, rock ‘n roll, camp songs, and whatever else came to mind when they were in jail. It was when they went to workshop at Highlander Folk School in early 1961 that Guy Carawan taught them “I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table,” “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” and “We Shall Overcome.” Candie Carawan remembered thinking, “These are wonderful songs. We need these songs.”
Candie Carawan: Singing in the Nashville Movement
Singing kept people together and focused on the bigger goals instead of their fears. As Hollis Watkins explained, “The songs kept us from thinking about what we were in at the time,” “Even if we didn’t know the song, our spirit was so high,” Bettie Mae Fikes remembered. “We were ready to go to jail. We were fighting for freedom. We were fighting for the right to vote.”
Hollis Watkins “Song Kept Us from Thinking About What We Were In”
And the only way we could motivate ourselves to face all these odds was singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” We’d get through singing that song, people had enough courage to face that danger. –Charles Neblett
Songs like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” helped people face police dogs or billy clubs, while others like “Uncle Tom’s Prayer” inspired people to take a stand.
Local people embraced the songs and the spirit of the Movement and made it their own. It was Bettie Mae Fikes and her young classmates at R.B. Hudson High School who took the lead in Selma, Alabama. When SNCC organizer Worth Long arrived in town, all he could do was throw in his support behind the students and follow them to jail.
Singing your way out of fear and feel like you’ve been liberated even though you’re on your way to jail. – Bettie Mae Fikes