Bob Dylan and the Civil Rights Movement

A closer look at Bob Dylan's "protest" songs

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Public Domain

Although Bob Dylan gained a superficial political worldview through Woody Guthrie's musical influence back in Minneapolis, when he arrived in New York in January 1961, he had no stance on the issues. By all accounts, it was Dylan's girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, that nudged him down the road as an activist singer. The daughter of union organizers, and a volunteer for the Congress of Racial Equality, Rotolo encouraged Dylan to perform at political rallies. At a February 1962 CORE benefit, he introduced his just-written broadside, “The Death of Emmitt Till,” his very first "protest" song.

A Songwriting Activist Emerges

Rapt with newfound idealism and hitting exciting new plateaus with his craft, the next 18 months became a songwriting bonanza as the young lyricist scratched out a raft of his finest topical songs. Recorded between April 24, 1962, and May 27, 1963, Dylan's second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, only catalyzed the 21-year-old's plunge into politics and his growing allegiance with the civil rights movement.

While “Oxford Town” examined the September 1962 clash between federal marshals and the Mississippi National Guard over James Meredith's right to attend the all-white university, it was “Blowin' in the Wind” that put Dylan on the map as a folk activist and popular musician. Already popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary, this career crown jewel quickly became one of the movement's principal anthems.

The Real Deal or Fame-Seeker?

Throughout 1962, Dylan had been performing benefits regularly around New York with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the grassroots group he most firmly aligned himself with, along with Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and The Staples Singers. While Dylan's detractors claim he was a fame-seeker, posturing to cash in on the folk movement, this was untrue. Dylan was a bona fide believer in the power of song to create change.

When he was invited to promote Freewheelin' on the Ed Sullivan Show on May 13, he chose to play “Talkin' John Birch Society Blues,” a track that lampooned the ultra-conservative reactionary group. When the producers got nervous and asked him to change songs, Dylan stalked away and his appearance was canceled.

Deeper Involvement

Enter the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. Pretty much Pete Seeger's showcase, Dylan's debut appearance was more than just an initiation into the club, but another shove toward the throne as the movement's celebrity poster boy. Joined onstage by Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, and the SNCC's Freedom Singers, Dylan wrapped up his set with “Blowin' in the Wind.” And for an encore, the group held hands, invoking the audience in a singalong of "We Shall Overcome"

Caught in the whirlwind, on August 28, Dylan and Baez would soon perform at the Freedom March in Washington, D.C., when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. Introduced by actor Ossie Davis, Dylan performed “When the Ship Comes In,” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” also joining Len Chandler for the song “Hold On.”

In late fall, Dylan finally got his baptism into the everyday realities of southern Blacks when he performed the Greenwood, Mississippi voter registration rally, where he played “With God on Our Side” to around 300 Black farmers. He also did “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” a freshly-penned song about the slaying of civil rights leader Medgar Evers that occurred weeks earlier. Both of these tracks would appear on his next album, the socially critical January '64 release, The Times They Are A-Changin'.

Political Disenchantment

While 1963 was Dylan's most active year in politics, it was also his most disillusioning. Feeling co-opted by white movement leaders and despising their expectations of him to become its star champion, Dylan began his retreat. Although he never stopped supporting the Black struggle, becoming a Pied Piper for liberal guilt-afflicted whites was a hypocritical role he was unwilling to play.

He voiced his disenchantment with the movement during his acceptance speech at the lavish December 1963 award ceremony for the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, when Dylan alienated the mostly white audience, criticizing the recent freedom march on Washington: “I looked around at all the Negroes there and I didn't see any Negroes that looked like none of my friends. My friends don't wear suits.” Obviously addressing his own suit-wearing audience, he then shocked the crowd further by saying he and Lee Harvey Oswald had a lot in common. As the booing started, he walked off.

Another Side of Bob Dylan

Ever-evolving as a songwriter, Bob Dylan's dip into politics had always been a segue to greater destinations. During the height of his activism in fall of 1963, he was already soaking up Beat influences and French modernism, and his craft was becoming less literal and much more poetic and literary, as reflected in his next release, the politically vacant August 1964 release, Another Side of Bob Dylan.

Reactions to the album from folk purists were immediate and harsh. Bob Dylan was abandoning the cause, they said. He wasn't living up to his responsibilities as a protest songwriter. He'd fallen into the fame trap. Of those who criticized him, to expect a 22-year-old artist at the peak of his creative prowess to remain stationary in dead-end politics was not only foolish but naïve.

Dylan's Apolitical Future

Although Dylan stepped out of activism in 1964, throughout the rest of his career he would make subtle political gestures and write the occasional topical ballad. For instance, 1971's “George Jackson,” about the militant Black Marxist's execution in a prison shootout, followed by the 1976 song and tour championing the release of the wrongly imprisoned boxer, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

More, when Dylan received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1991 Grammys, with Desert Storm in full swing, he performed “Masters of War”.—the same song he ironically played during a 1990 West Point concert. And on election night 2008, as Barack Obama's victory was announced, Dylan deviated from his usual live encore of “Like a Rolling Stone” to play the rare “Blowin' in the Wind”.