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MSUM exhibit looks at songs behind Civil Rights movement

Mahalia Jackson's version of the spiritual “I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” is also featured. Special to The Forum1 / 4
Nina Simone's fiery "Mississippi Goddam" is featured in the display “The Songs of Resistance & Civil Rights” at MSUM. Special to The Forum2 / 4
Sam Cooke's song, "A Change is Gonna Come", closes the display. The song became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement and was played at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Special to The Forum3 / 4
Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter's version of Jim Crow Blues is included in the display. Special to The Forum4 / 4

MOORHEAD—The gallery inside the Roland Dille Center for the Arts at Minnesota State University Moorhead usually showcases student works, but a display in the Art Annex offers a musical trip down memory lane. An often dark and disturbing memory lane in America's history.

The "Songs of Resistance & Civil Rights" brings the movement's socially charged soundtrack, from 1930s blues to spirituals and gospel tunes and the R&B and soul of the 1960s, into focus.

"The Civil Rights movement was ripe with music," says Phyllis May-Machunda, a faculty member in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

May-Machunda and Laurie Blunsom, chair of the School of Art and a faculty member in the School of Performing Arts, assembled the display to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination on April 4, 1968. The exhibit opened on the Civil Rights leader's holiday, Jan. 15, and remains up through Feb. 28 for Black History Month.

"It's a wonderful way of commemorating his work and educating our community on the power of music." says May-Machunda.

The display uses panels with pictures and text to outline the history of the movement and tie in some of the more effective songs of the period. Some panels play the featured music.

"'We Shall Overcome' was kind of our starting point," Blunsom says

"We wanted people to know it wasn't the only Freedom Song," May-Machunda adds.

The show opens with a discussion on segregationist Jim Crow laws in the first 65 years of the 20th century. Blues and folk singer Lead Belly's "Jim Crow Blues," kicks off the soundtrack, featuring the lines, "I told everybody over the radio/ Make up their mind and get together, break up this old Jim Crow".

The spiritual "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned" is another powerful number, as is the story of one of its best-known performances. According to legend, Mahalia Jackson sang it before King made his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and urged the orator, "Tell them about the dream."

Another great delivery belongs to Nina Simone. The jazz pianist/singer takes a showtune approach to the violence in the South at the time. Outraged by the murder of Civil Rights advocate and NAACP organizer Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four black children, she recorded "Mississippi Goddam" in 1964.

"You don't have to live next to me/ just give me my equality," she sang.

Simone also gave new life to Billie Holiday's 1939 classic, "Strange Fruit," which addresses lynchings in the South. In the days before viral videos, the depictions in songs like these spread by word of mouth, underscoring the importance of oral traditions.

"A movement needs tangible images and these songs provided that," May-Machunda says. "Music mobilizes people. It empowered people to put their life on the line."

She repeats a story about the night before the Selma to Montgomery march and the threat of a bombing at a church marchers were gathered at.

"Instead of people fleeing, they sang. And I mean they sang," May-Machunda. "It lifted the fear out of the environment. In the black community, there was that power, faith and music seemed to protect it."

If You Go

What: Songs of Resistance & Civil Rights

When: On display through Feb. 28

Where: Art Annex of the Roland Dille Center for the Arts, MSUM campus.

Info: The exhibit is free and open to the public.