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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Overcome

Album cover, The Impressions, People Get Ready, ABC-Paramount Records, 1965
"People Get Ready"
- Curtis Mayfield, "People Get Ready," song, 1965
 - Lyrics
 - Audio Clips (NPR broadcast)

In his essay "Fumbling on the New Frontier," (see #1: New Hope?), Martin Luther King, Jr., quotes Victor Hugo's famous dictum that "Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come." Indeed, the early 1960s proved to be the right time for civil rights progress. In 1963 the March on Washington made the Beloved Community seem like a real possibility rather than a faint hope. The following year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. In 1965 it passed the Voting Rights Act, and President Johnson issued an executive order enforcing affirmative action. Yet every inch of progress faced resolute and impassioned resistance. In 1960 demonstrators were beaten as they tried to desegregate lunch counters and other public facilities in the South. In 1961 freedom riders were attacked as they sought to desegregate Southern bus stations. A year later President Kennedy dispatched federal troops to quell riots sparked by the desegregation of the University of Mississippi. In 1963 brutal attacks on demonstrators throughout the South, the murder of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and the killing of four young black girls in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, revealed the ferocity of the opposition. In this atmosphere the assassination of John Kennedy deepened doubts about the fundamental decency and morality of American society. Over the next two years those doubts grew more haunting as civil rights workers were murdered and Malcolm X assassinated.

During this painful time many Americans, black and white, yearned for redemption and healing. In "People Get Ready" Curtis Mayfield (1942-1999) addressed those feelings. Like "We Shall Overcome," which it joined as an anthem of the civil rights movement, it offers an image of the Beloved Community. With its resonant allusions and gentle rhythm, it holds out the promise of "hope for all." (Listen online. Lyrics: 1 page.)

Discussion questions
  1. In "People Get Ready," what does the train suggest?
  2. In what ways is this a song about redemption?
  3. In what ways does it pose a challenge?
  4. "People Get Ready" and "We Shall Overcome" became important songs in the civil rights movement. Why?
  5. How does this song define community?

Framing Questions
  •  By the end of the 1960s, what had African Americans overcome?
  •  How had the civil rights movement affected the lives of African Americans?
  •  What remained to be overcome?

"People Get Ready," lyrics 1 page
Supplemental Sites
Curtis Mayfield, from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Album cover, The Impressions, People Get Ready, ABC-Paramount Records, 1965. Permission pending from Universal Music Group.

1. New Hope?   2. "People Get Ready"   3. From Negro to Black
4. Attacking Stereotypes   5. Soul   6. Dubious Victory
  7. Making It

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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