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Civil Rights Song Books for Children


Civil Rights Song Books for Children

Debra Jacobs

As a parent or teacher, you know the power of music. It can shift moods, help with transitions, encourage positive interactions, and teach lessons.

It can also change the world.

Songs of the Civil Rights Movement helped protesters stay strong, peaceful, and committed in the face of violence and arrests. Music brought people together and helped move onlookers into action. Music can also point out injustice and lay claim to common cause.

Picture books that illustrate songs of protest can help you tell your child the story of the struggle for civil rights. The songs, with their rich history, can become part of your repertoire. Sung often enough, they will become permanently embedded in your child’s memory. As she grows older and learns more about civil rights and other social justice movements, their meanings will unfold in ever deeper layers.

Alastair Moock, the singer/songwriter who leads music sessions in my preschool, introduced me to two of the following three books (more about Alastair here and here):

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We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song

This book by Debbie Levy, beautifully illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, tells the story of the iconic civil rights song, including both lyrics and explanations of its history. Pulling no punches, Levy talks about slavery, violence, and hatred, while showing the power of the old slave song - whose words changed from “I will overcome” to “We shall overcome” - to offer hope and strength. I LOVE hearing my preschoolers spontaneously break out into rousing renditions of We Shall Overcome.

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This Little Light of Mine

The only words in this book, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, are the lyrics to the spiritual that became a staple of the civil rights songbook. This isn’t a book about protest, however. The illustrations depict a young African American boy who lives in a rural setting, shining his light wherever he goes. He helps an elderly woman pick up groceries she’s dropped, for example, and when he sees a dejected boy sitting by himself, he invites him to play.

You can talk about how the “light” in the song can mean kindness, and ask your child how he will shine his light. You can also use the book and song as a launching pad for discussions about how and why people sang this song as they protested discrimination.

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This Land is Your Land

Guthrie’s classic folk song speaks to the beauty and variety of America - and to the injustice of inequality and the fact that some people lack access to all that America offers. This lyrics-only picture book, illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen, includes the verse omitted in recordings aimed at showing a more sanitized, idyllic version of the country: “In the shadow of the steeple, I saw my people/By the relief office, I seen my people/As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/Is this land made for you and me?” It ends with hope and resolve: “Nobody living can ever stop me/ As I go walking that freedom highway.”

Preschoolers generally love this song, and the book provides a way to discuss its deeper meaning and how it has helped people to fight for equality.