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On What Counts as Activism: SNCC’s Freedom Singers and the Atmospheric Politics of Civil Rights Protest

Authors: Derek Alderman*, University of Tennessee, Jordan Brasher*, University of Tennessee, Joshua Inwood, Penn State University
Topics: Ethnicity and Race, Cultural Geography, Historical Geography
Keywords: music, civil rights, Black Geographies, SNCC, Freedom Singers, atmosphere
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Scholars widely recognized that music played a role in supporting the American Civil Rights Movement by raising spirits and funds, occupying audiences while speakers ran late, and drowning out the racist insults of white supremacist protesters. But, music-making represented political practice in its own right, prompting us to (re)consider what counts as activism. We conceptualize civil rights musical performances in terms of the atmospheric politics of (anti)racism. While white supremacist control certainly relied on discriminatory laws and physical violence, it also required the creation of an atmosphere to affect negatively and often brutally the psychological well-being of people of color. Activist musical artists had the capacity to appropriate and transform that racialized atmosphere of fear and intimidation and forge a resistant sensory environment. We examine the affective activism of the Freedom Singers (1962-66), a student quartet formed by SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), that traveled across the US to perform at colleges, elementary and high schools, concert halls, living rooms, jails, political rallies, and ultimately at the March on Washington. The Freedom Singers’ stated goals were promotional and philanthropic, but we recast their musical praxis within the atmospheric politics of racism in America and their ability to frame the political-emotional stakes of the African American Freedom struggle for different audiences in different places and at different scales. While their music countered the apprehension and uncertainty that permeated oppressed communities in which SNCC worked, it affected a wider US public whose feelings and solidarity were important to the Movement’s efficacy.

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