Jennifer Welch, Rebecca Welch Weigel
Performing Arts, Social Science
Material Type:
Lesson, Primary Source
High School
  • Constitutional Theater
  • Living Document
  • constitutional-theater
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives
    Media Formats:

    3. How Music Moved the Movement

    3. How Music Moved the Movement


    Through the play Beautiful Agitators and accompanying curriculum, students will eplore the life of Vera Mae Pigee and the impact of voter supression.

    Beautiful Agitators Lesson Plan: Scene Three

    Standards: Local civil rights history, power relations & social justice, ties to national movement, ties to historical tactic: civil disobedience & nonviolent resistance.

    Content Strand 4: Understand and describe the historical circumstances and conditions that necessitated the development of civil rights and human rights protections and/or activism for various minority groups in Mississippi.

    b. Identify and explain the significance of the major actors, groups and events of the civil rights movement in the mid 20th century in Mississippi (i.e., Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, James Meredith, Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

    Tactics: Organizing, Collective Action & Unity

    Time Period: 1960’s

    Leaders: Guy Carawan (musician), Mary Jane Pigee, NAACP, SCLC and SNCC


    LESSON: How Music Moves the Movement

    WILMA: I felt the thickness in the air just standing in the crowd…no one was looking at me, and I felt it.. (looks at Mary Jane lost for words)  You and Guy Carawan singing “We Shall Overcome”. (looks at Mary Jane with admiration) … a colored woman with a white man singing on the same stage. AND in front of colored and white folks for the 1st time in Coahoma County. (silent for a minute) It made me believe anything was possible.



    Music in the Civil Rights Movement

    Introduction to Highlander Folk School:

    The Highlander Folk School served as an important nexus for integrated training of civil rights activists. In collaboration with SCLC, the NAACP and SNCC, the Highlander Folk School worked to provide leadership training and developed programs to aid in the understanding and realization of civic identity and the pursuit of civil rights.

    In his role as Music Director at Highlander Folk School, Guy Carawan worked to capture, record, perform and distribute the music of the movement. Many of the songs that were produced and published by Carawan were songs that were already part of a deep foundation of Black musical tradition such as spirituals, gospel and in the Delta … blues.  Guy Carawan’s intent in the distribution and publication was to preserve these songs long associated with the struggle for freedom. The anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome”, is an important testimony to the collaborative nature of music and the way in which older songs informed new interpretations and were shared across generations to support the common goal of freedom.


    1. Students will gain awareness of the Highlander Folk School and the role in which it played in the training of civil rights leaders.
    2. Students will explore the importance of using traditional Black spirituals, Black gospel music and folk music as a means of amplifying the message of the movement. 
    3. Students will be able to articulate the ways in which Freedom Songs tell the story of the civil rights movement.

    ACTIVITY: Brief Small Group Research/ Whole Class Discussion

    Divide the class into small groups and assign each group a document, set of documents or radio clips relating to Highlander Folk School. Students will read the documents or listen to radio clips and then have a whole class discussion to answer the following questions. (Students will share which document/s or radio clips that they are working from and provide details from the document/s to support their assertions.) 

    1. What was the mission of the Highlander Folk School during the 1950-1960s?
    2. Who were the significant leaders of the Highlander folk school?
    3. What training was offered at the Highlander?
    4. Who were the participants in Highlander’s programming?
    5. What prominent and well-known figures of the civil rights movement were associated  with Highlander Folk School?
    6. What role did music play in the programming at Highlander Folk School?
    7. Who were the Freedom Singers?

    ACTIVITY: Playlists

    Students will work to identify Freedom songs In small groups, students will select 1-2 songs to use to analyze lyrics and to situate in historical context.  Alternatively, instructors can provide a selection of songs for the students to work with for the activity. Ex.: “Ballad of Student Sit-Ins”, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”, “Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree of Life”, “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, “I’m Going to Sit at the Welcome Table”, etc.

    Using Freedom/protest/sit-in songs as primary source materials, students will interpret what the lyrics intend to say about the struggle of this time period and how that struggle is communicated?

    Students will be able to answer the following questions:

    1. How did music play a vital role in expanding the audience for the mission of the civil rights movement?
    2. What was the role of music in activism?
    3. How does music serve as a means of protest then and now?

    Using the songs identifed as Freedom songs during the civil rights movement, students will design an annotated soundtrack/playlist of the civil rights movement. Students will research the significance of songs that were made popular by identifying the themes of the songs and how those themes are supported by the lyrics. Students will be sure to cite their songs appropriately in the playlist with a 2-3 sentence explanation of why they included this song in their playlist. The length of the playlist should be determined by the instructor.

    Name of Group or Performer. Year of Original Release/Recording. "Title of Song." Track# on Title Album. Label, Year of Release (if different), medium.

    Students should address the following:

    1. What events or people inspired the writing of the song?
    2. Was the song a new song or part of the canon of Freedom songs?
    3. Where would the song be played?
    4. Was the song played on the radio?
    5. Who is the intended audience of this song?
    6. What inferences can you make regarding organization methodology in this song?
    7. How does the chorus call for action or unity or both?

    Bring this discussion to the present day:  

    1. Identify a struggle/movement that pertains to the present day.  
    2. If you were to create a playlist for this movement, what songs would you include? Why?  
    3. What topics/themes are communicated in the lyrics? How?

    ACTIVITY: Discussion

    Extend into discussion of art as a unifying phenomenon.  

    1. What types of art help to convey messages of struggle or for necessary change?  
    2. What is the role of art in protest?
    3. How does art unify a community?
    4. How do artists contribute to the discussion of difficult issues in a community?  
    5. How can you contribute to your community as an artist or a consumer/supporter of the arts?
    6. What examples can we find of that today? Ex: poetry, literature, paintings, murals, etc.

    ACTIVITY: Exploring Artwork

    Ask students to find an example of art that they feel communicates a message regarding struggle or unity.  Students should write a brief paper or create a slideshow explaining what message they believe the art conveys.  

    • Students should address how the artist communicates this message.
    • Challenge students to find their artist’s artistic statement/mission.  
    • How has this art been received?
    • Has there been controversy surrounding this piece of art?
    • Students should be mindful to examine the historical context in which the art was created.  
    • They should reflect upon the place this piece of art has in the conversation regarding art as protest.








    Beautiful Agitators Script: Scene Three

    Scene Three

    1961: A Sunday night; Mary Jane AND Wilma are at Vera’s house sitting at the table relaxing after the big concert and waiting for Nick to return.

    WILMA: I really liked y’alls performance tonight at the church, Mary Jane.

    MARY JANE: Thank you, Wilma! What did you like best about it?

    WILMA: I just like listening to you sing…(pause) Were you nervous?

    MARY JANE: I wasn’t nervous to be singing. But looking into the crowd and eyeing down that Chief Collins made me uneasy…

    WILMA: Not knowing what he was gonna do?

    MARY JANE: Not knowing what he could do.

    WILMA: I felt the thickness in the air just standing in the crowd…no one was looking at me, and I felt it.. (looks at Mary Jane lost for words)  You and Guy Carawan singing “We Shall Overcome”. (looks at Mary Jane with admiration) … a colored woman with a white man singing on the same stage. AND in front of colored and white folks for the 1st time in Coahoma County. (silent for a minute) It made me believe anything was possible.

    MARY JANE: That’s why we did it. When I got on that stage and started singing it felt like the way it’s supposed to be.

    WILMA: (smiles) You’re startin’ to sound like ya mama now. (both laugh)

    (Abrupt knock on door. Wilma and Mary Jane stop to look at one another. Nick -enter)

    MARY JANE: Did they make it?

    NICK: Guy and his wife just got arrested.

    WILMA: Mrs. Carawan is pregnant… Jail is no place for a pregnant woman!

    MARY JANE: Nick, didn’t you follow them across the county line?

    NICK: Yes we did. We had six cars to escort them. Three in front, three behind. We had Reverend Rayford and Reverend Drew with us.

    MARY JANE: What reason did they have to arrest them?

    WILMA: They don’t need a reason. Mississippi police will arrest you for having two feet.

    NICK: Rev.Rayford says the cops got ‘em on a trumped up charge. They gave ‘em a ticket for running a red light

    (Nick picks up phone and begins to dial) 

    and took ‘em to the station.

    MARY JANE: - Who are you calling?

    NICK: The Press Register - They’ll want to know that after Guy Carawan played in Coahoma County’s first integrated concert - he was thrown in jail!

    WILMA: This is getting crazy.

    MARY JANE: My mama and the NAACP lawyers need to be contacted too. Wilma can you call them? Nick, can you drive me to the station? I can’t believe they have arrested a white woman and a pregnant one at that!

    Lesson Three Video: How Music Moved the Movement

    Lesson Three Video:How Music Moved the Movement