UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970:  Photo of Nina Simone  Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Iconic song inspired by civil rights fight
02:01 - Source: CNN

Explore the music tied to iconic moments in history on the CNN Original Series “Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History,” now streaming on demand and CNNGo.

CNN  — 

Black Lives Matter activist Zellie Imani remembers the moment civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson came to Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of Michael Brown’s 2014 death.

Crowds had gathered to protest the fatal shooting of unarmed, 18-year-old Brown by a white police officer, and Imani remembers Jackson joining the demonstrators as they marched toward a church.

But Jackson, it seems, had missed a crucial memo.

“I think he tried to have us sing ‘We Shall Overcome,’” Imani recalls in the CNN original series “Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History,” referring to the popular hymn that has been sung as a protest anthem around the world. The song has its roots in an African-American spiritual from the early 1900s, and became a call for resistance and freedom during the African-American struggle for civil rights.

“(But) the song doesn’t tell us when we shall overcome,” Imani continues. “It is saying that we will overcome someday – and what we in the streets wanted, we wanted justice now.”

Wanting justice now doesn’t mean the newest generation of protesters failed to see the value in having some sort of battle cry; a song that could unify their movement, express their yearnings and provide a balm all at the same time.

At this protest, Imani says, “people started to chant Kendrick Lamar’s ‘(We Gon’ Be) Alright.’”

This shift from church-ready protest anthems to something less gentle and more explicit has rubbed at least one civil rights activist the wrong way.

But it also shows that the long-held American tradition of protest music didn’t fade away with the social revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s. Artists using songs as resistance, or protesters adopting their work as de facto anthems, never went away – with each generation, and with each protest, there’s been a new voice.

Scroll through the guide below to hear the evolution of American protest anthems:

Three women stand with nooses around their necks during a 1946 protest of lynchings.

The year: 1930s - 1950s

The protest: Lynchings of African-Americans

The anthem: “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, more than 4,000 African-Americans were lynched across 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950. An image of one of these public lynchings so haunted Abel Meeropol, a Jewish teacher living in the Bronx, that he wrote the protest poem that eventually became Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”

Using the popular jazz of the era, Holiday bore witness to the atrocities happening in the American South and turned protesting into art.

Unemployed men wait for a relief check in Imperial Valley, California, during the Great Depression.

The year: 1940

The protest: Economic opportunity

The anthem: “This Land is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie

Today a favorite in kindergarten classrooms, “This Land is Your Land” started out as an annoyed response to the blinding optimism of late ’30s hit “God Bless America.”

American folk legend Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land” in 1940 as an alternative, standing in opposition of “Depression-enhanced economic disparity” and the “greed he witnessed in so many pockets of the country,” says American Songwriter.

A protester being taken away by police at a civil rights demonstration.

The year: 1962

The protest: Civil rights

The anthem: “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round”

There’s no way to separate the US civil rights movement from its music. The song was so integral to its existence and purpose that in 1962 it spawned the Freedom Singers, a quartet that sang songs steeped in African-American gospel traditions.

“We sang everywhere. We sang at house parties, at Carnegie Hall – to take the message of this movement to the North,” Freedom Singer Charles Neblett recalls in CNN’s “Soundtracks.” “Mass meetings, picket lines, in jails – music was the glue that held everything together.”

Songs like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” may sound like another performance of a traditional spiritual, but listen closely and you’ll hear lyrics that spoke to the time: “Ain’t gonna let no jailhouse turn me round. Keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’, marching up to freedom land.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his "I Have A Dream" speech on August 28, 1963.

The year: 1963

The protest: The March on Washington

The anthem: “If I Had a Hammer,” Peter, Paul and Mary

Originally written by socially conscious folk icon Pete Seeger, it’s the Peter, Paul and Mary recording of “If I Had a Hammer” that took off in the early ’60s.

It was popular folk music, but it also keenly reflected the times as an anthem of resistance and fighting for justice: Peter, Paul and Mary sang “Hammer” at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington to “express in song what (the) great meeting is all about.”

Peter Norman (left), Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

The year: 1968

The protest: Black Power movement

The anthem: “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” James Brown

The assassination of MLK in 1968 not only altered the African-American fight for equal rights – it altered the music about the struggle, as well.

Before MLK’s death, “you had the hymns of unity and change,” music and culture journalist Richard Goldstein explains. But with the rise of the Black Power Movement in the aftermath of King’s death, “the hymns fade and are replaced by much more militant sentiments in the music.”

Two women participate in a 1970s demonstration for equal rights.

The year: 1970s

The protest: Women’s rights

The anthem: “I Am Woman,” Helen Reddy

Australian artist Helen Reddy didn’t set out to become the voice of the women’s liberation movement, but that’s what she became with this 1972 women’s empowerment single.

“I was looking for songs that reflected the positive sense of self that I felt I’d gained from the women’s movement,” she told Billboard magazine, “[but] I couldn’t find any. I realized that the song I was looking for didn’t exist, and I was going to have to write it myself.” The song went all the way to No. 1, making Reddy the first Australian solo artist to accomplish that feat in the US.

Four students were killed when Ohio National Guard troops fired at demonstrators at Kent State.

The year: 1970

The protest: Anti-Vietnam War

The anthem: “Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

Between the civil rights movement and outrage over the Vietnam War, there were more than enough social issues happening in the ’60s and ‘70s to create a new standard for protest music.

One of the songs that emerged was Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s response to the police-led shootings during an anti-war protest at Kent State University in 1970.

The Guardian, which calls “Ohio” the “greatest protest record” ever, notes that the song was born out of the now iconic images of what happened at Kent State. “Neil Young was hanging out … when his bandmate, David Crosby, handed him the latest issue of Life magazine,” the Guardian recalled. “It contained a vivid account and shocking photographs of the killing of four students by the Ohio national guard during a demonstration against the Vietnam war. … Young took a guitar proffered by Crosby and, in short order, wrote a song about the killings.”

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Why Public Enemy's 'Fight the Power' matters
00:49 - Source: CNN

The year: Late ’80s - Early ‘90s

The protest: Systemic racism

The anthems: “Fight the Power,” “F*** tha Police”

The progress of the ’60s civil rights movement could be found in the law, but not necessarily in American communities. Racism and its impact was still plainly seen in large and small cities across the United States, as well as, protesters would argue, within those cities’ police forces.

This frustration was funneled into louder, angrier and more direct anthems like N.W.A.’s controversial 1988 track “F*** Tha Police” and Public Enemy’s 1989 anthem “Fight the Power.”

A rainbow flag is waved in front of the Supreme Court in Washington.

The year: 2010s

The protest: Marriage equality

The anthem: “Born This Way,” Lady Gaga; “Same Love,” Macklemore

The marriage equality movement hit its stride in 2015 as the US Supreme Court heard a case that would decide whether same-sex marriage would be legalized across the country.

In the buildup to this moment, popular culture played a role in pushing back against hurtful stereotypes and championing equality regardless of sexuality. It’s no surprise that Lady Gaga’s self-acceptance anthem, 2011’s “Born This Way,” and Macklemore’s “Same Love,” were both securely in the US’s Top 40 songs in the five years leading up to the Supreme Court’s historic decision in favor of marriage equality.

In 2014, a protester stands in front of police vehicles in Ferguson, Missouri.

The year: 2010s

The protest: Black Lives Matter

The anthem: “Alright,” Kendrick Lamar

Along with the rise of Black Lives Matter, a social justice movement that began with a hashtag in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, has been the rise of a new era of protest music.

From J. Cole (“Be Free”) to Beyonce (“Formation”) to Kendrick Lamar (“Alright”), these artists aren’t making songs tailor-made to be sung while marching, but they are overtly political music in an era of increasing outcry at the deaths of black men and women by police.

Like “We Shall Overcome” did more than 50 years ago, Lamar’s “Alright” has become an almost unofficial anthem for those protesting injustice. “There are multiple messages,” says Salamishah Tillet, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “One, you’re going to be alright because we’re going to get through this day and we’re going to be able to be here tomorrow; we’re going to fight to save this nation and fight to save ourselves.”

“But,” she continues, “it’s also like, ‘We’re right’ – this is a morally righteous cause.”