"Keep Your Eyes on the Prize": A Civil Rights Movement Anthem

The Story of an Iconic American Folk Song

March On Washington
Underwood Archives / Getty Images

A moving song that became an anthem for the civil rights movement, "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" is a memorable piece of music. It has been recorded by countless musicians, sung at numerous marches and rallies, and continues to inspire all who sing and hear it. 

Without a doubt, this variation on an old spiritual has helped bring about change, the primary purpose of its lyrics. It has cemented a place among the greatest songs of American folk music.

History of "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize"

Based on a classic hymn, this song's exact origins are unknown. The hymn and the modern song have both had many titles attributed to them, including "Hold On," "Gospel Plow," and "Keep Your Hand on the Plow."

It is believed that an arrangement that led to the current version was written sometime prior to World War I. However, it was modified for the civil rights movement in the 1950s by an activist named Alice Wine. Wine added verses and changed some lyrics to adapt it specifically to the plight of Civil Rights activists.

Over the years, the song has become the sort of unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement. Quite often, you will see it in music videos featuring clips from the protests and rallies that were instrumental in bringing about change. The title was also used for a 2009 PBS documentary series, "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965."

The power of the song still rings true today. It is continually used to uplift and inspire. A countless number of people have testified to its life-changing lyrics, even beyond political and social issues. It is a poignant reminder that whatever difficulty you face, there is hope if you keep fighting.

"Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" Lyrics

As it was adapted from an old spiritual song about continuing on despite adversity, the lyrics of "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" allude to many passages from the Bible. Notably, people point to Philippians verses 3:17 and 3:14, though the original hymn seems to reference Luke 9:62.

The lyrics are about transcending oppression and persevering despite any struggle or obstacles that may arise in one's path:

Paul and Silas thought they was lost
Dungeon shook and the chains come off
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Freedom's name is mighty sweet
And soon we're gonna meet
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

Behind the lyrics is a moving, syncopated rhythm, one that can easily inspire on its own. The song is sung with great passion and is especially easy to learn. All of these elements make it particularly useful for its intended purpose.

Who Has Recorded "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize"?

Several versions of this quintessential civil rights anthem have been recorded by a number of well-known artists. The list includes excellent versions by Mahalia Jackson, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and more recently Bruce Springsteen.

It is also a moving piece when sung a capella and is used regularly by many vocal ensembles.