Songs of civil rights movement ring out at White House

The ghosts of some past presidents must have haunted the East Room of the White House on Feb. 9.

As part of its Black History Month events, the White House celebrated the music of the civil rights movement in the East Room that day. Smokey Robinson, Natalie Cole, the Freedom Singers, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jennifer Hudson, John Mellencamp and others gathered to perform some of the great old songs of that era.

The songs that form a cultural foundation for much of the social change movements of the 20th and 21st century echoed through the White House that night. Mellencamp performed a rocking version of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” while Dylan growled out a lullaby rendition of his “The Times They are a Changing.”

A soulful “(Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody) Turn Me Around” by the Freedom Singers may have been the most moving performance of the night. As the song began, singer Bernice Johnson Reagon stopped and urged the audience to join in. “You have to actually sing this song,” she said. “You can never tell when you might need it.”

A touching version of “Abraham, Martin and John” by Smokey Robinson evoked a mournful reflection on the loss of three leaders, two of whom were occupants of the White House, and their impact on the movements for equality and democracy.

Natalie Cole performed Marvin Gaye’s anti-racist and anti-war song “What’s Going On,” including a denunciation of the escalation of the war in Vietnam. The line “War is not the answer” still resonates today.

The East Room is typically used for such public White House events.

But some 200 hundred years ago, President Thomas Jefferson used the room to temporarily house explorers Merriwether Lewis and George Rogers Clark after their return from crossing the country to the Pacific Ocean, essentially opening the U.S. government’s nearly 200-year war on this continent’s indigenous peoples and nations.

Thomas Jefferson is most well known for penning the Declaration of Independence in 1776, including the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

However from the way he lived his life and the ideas he held, we know that Thomas Jefferson really believed these words applied only to a portion of the people. In 1785, for example, he wrote a book called “Notes on the State of Virginia,” explaining his views on how his home state’s government should be organized. It would be his only published book, and it was probably the first book-length political treatise published in the U.S.

In that book, Jefferson took time out to explain and defend the racist ideology behind white supremacy and the separation of races. People of African descent, he insisted, lacked imagination, the ability to reason or any significant artistic capacity. They are incapable of meaningful and original artistic expression and are suited only for labor, Jefferson pontificated, in the pseudo-scientific manner racists typically adopt. At best, Black and white people should always be kept apart, he concluded.

It was ideas like these that served as the foundation for the slave system. Many occupants of the White House, up to Lincoln, would come to repeat these ideas and support the slave system they justified. Even after the end of the slave regime, presidents like Andrew Johnson and Woodrow Wilson defended Jefferson’s racial ideology. Wilson invoked them when he described the brief overturning of white supremacy in the South during the Reconstruction period as “a public crime.” Theodore Roosevelt mouthed his own updated version of Jefferson’s theories of race when he described racial inter-marriage and the influx of immigrants as a form of “race suicide.”

The celebration in the East Room on Feb. 9  stands as a sign of the many struggles and deep changes the country has been through.

Massive painted likenesses of Theodore Roosevelt and George Washington could only stare silently as our country’s first Black president and his beautiful family hosted this concert celebrating the voices and music and struggles of our country’s Second Reconstruction.

What a change indeed!

Bernice Reagon and the Freedom Singers at the White House:

Check out other videos of the concert at the White House page.


Corrected: an earlier version of this article had an incorrect date for the White House event.



Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).