During the American Civil Rights movements spearheaded by Dr Martin Luther King Jr., Oh Freedom, was written by Odetta as a protest song. Oh Freedom is hailed repeatedly to celebrate the dignity acquired by the former slaves after emancipation. It is however, still expressed as a yearning for greater integration to be released from the miseries the former slaves still faced after emancipation.
‘And before I’d be a slave I’d be buried in my grave’, expresses the absolute rejection of slavery, willing even to die instead of going back. Freedom meant many things to the society back then. It meant death in the sense of escaping the current tribulations but it also meant freedom as a release from servitude. ‘And go home to my Lord –and be free’ suggests the kind of life they lived that they yearned to be saved from. The song particularly characterises the importance of the church in the civil rights movement with many of the vocal movement leaders being church elders.
The song was also intended to give hope and reassurance to the society. ‘No more mourning over me’ the general tone and message of the song are intended to inspire hope and give strength to the people. Many of their comrades had been lost to the war and here they were appreciating the fact that there’s no more death that their loved ones would mourn over. This further emphasises Luther King’s nonviolence policy backed by civil disobedience. No violence meant no death and this was a central part of the movement’s success.
Beyond the despair, the song embraces a joyful life after emancipation. ‘There’ll be singing over me’ gives hope to the fact that instead of mourning there will be celebrations. As the freed slaves were leaving the plantations, others were becoming volunteers for the Union Army, others reuniting with their long lost loved ones and many all of them commencing life as free people, celebrations were abound regardless of the present situation.
Oh Freedom resonated with the African American society during the civil rights movement not just for its message and sense of belonging but also for its joyful tone. The song inspired many and has been sung even in other movements for better working conditions. The song brings an opportunity to reflect on the particular setting during the time the song was sung and serves as excellent movement song.