I’m thankful for the opportunity to learn about the contributions that Phil Ochs and other folksingers made to the civil rights movement. The first topic I chose to write about was the powerful civil rights song “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” I was a little stuck on what my next topic would be, but as I began my research it revealed itself to me right away. Initially, I found very little “verifiable” material about the motivation for the song or any analysis of the lyrics. However, when I ran across The Mississippi Caravan of Music I was singing, “I once was lost, but now I’m found!”
The Caravan was a volunteer supported, social justice campaign that united folksingers with black communities in Mississippi through music. It worked in conjunction with the Mississippi Freedom Summer Campaign, a statewide social justice program implemented in the summer of 1964. The goal of Freedom Summer was to register as many black voters as possible in a time when blacks faced many obstacles and risks if they wanted to vote. Imagine if registering to vote could put your life at risk.
The Freedom Summer Campaign made a big impact in passing the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This act made it illegal to deny someone the opportunity to vote based on their race. And I thought about it for a second before I realized, that I actually have the opportunity to vote as a result of these campaigns. It’s not just something that happened a long time ago, this directly affects me today. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of these campaigns before, and I became obsessed with all there was to know about them.
So, what does all of this have to do with Phil Ochs? Quite a bit in fact. Ochs volunteered with The Mississippi Caravan of Music. His experience that summer inspired the lyrics for the song “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” It wasn’t just the way that Mississippi oppressed the black community through Jim Crow laws, etc. that fired up Ochs. It was the Ku Klux Klan murder of three civil rights workers that added fuel to the fiery lyrics in his song. I can even speculate that specific details of the murders could be attributed to lyrics in the song. Ochs uses the line, “If you drag her muddy river nameless bodies you will find.” This can reflect the fact that the bodies of the victims were found buried beneath a dam. He sings about the cops of Mississippi, “They’re chewing their tobacco as they lock the prison door.” It was well known by locals, that the arresting officer who participated with the Ku Klux Klan murders heavily chewed tobacco. I wished I had more time to focus on analyzing the lyrics, especially since there was little to no research about the song’s connection to the murders. This is frustrating to me, because while there isn’t a verified connection between the lyrics and the murders—one can deduce. As a result, I wasn’t able to actually attribute the lyrics to the murders in my article, but either way the song’s message is clear.
The first time I listened to the song’s lyrics I was floored. The first thing I noticed is that not much has changed regarding civil rights between then and now. Ochs describes many of the same problems we face today with the Black Lives Matter movement. It seems like the civil rights movement reborn, and today’s problems are just Jim Crow part II. Secondly, I got chills, the song was incredibly moving (I’ve found a new favorite).
The civil rights movement is a topic that has always been dear to me, mainly because of my grandparents who grew up in rural Louisiana during the era. From an early age, they told me stories about black history and showered me with materials about our heritage. We visited the National Museum of Civil Rights in Memphis, Tennessee too many times to count. And to be honest, it wasn’t really the stories they shared about black leaders, or the visits to the museum that had the biggest impact on me. It was the pain and shame that I saw on their faces when I would ask them about their personal experiences. They never shared too much, and I’ve learned to respect that. But it’s these kinds of personal connections that made this research process so incredible. It has left me with a feeling of gratitude, and a new respect towards Phil Ochs’ contribution to social justice and equality.