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Lesson 2: Learning “Freedom Highway”

Aim: How are strong beats used in freedom songs?
Summary: Students will learn to sing “Freedom Highway” and some of its musical elements.
Materials: Musical Explorers digital resources, Musical Explorers Student Guide
Standards: National 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 11; NYC 1, 2, 3, 4
Vocabulary: strong beat

The Staple Singers wrote the song “Freedom Highway” in response to the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, mere days after it took place. Its first performance, which was at the New Nazareth Church in Chicago, was recorded. Roebuck “Pops” Staples introduced the song by saying, “From that march, words were revealed, and a song was composed. And we wrote a song about the freedom marchers. And we call it the ‘Freedom Highway.’ And we’re dedicating this number to all of the freedom marchers.”

Starr Teaches “March That Freedom Highway”

“March That Freedom Highway” Demonstration

Freedom songs artist Starr teaches her arrangement of the traditional song “Freedom Highway.”

Sing “Freedom Highway”

“Freedom Highway”


March the freedom highway
March each and ev’ry day

Made up my mind and I won’t turn around
Made up my mind and I won’t turn around

There is just one thing
I can’t understand my friend.
Why some folk think freedom
Was not designed for all men.

Yes, I think I voted for the right man
Said we would overcome.

Explore Strong Beats in “Freedom Highway”

  • Listening to “Freedom Highway,” ask students to “march” around the room, as if they are part of the Selma march.
    • How does your body want to move?
  • Ask students to begin counting the four beats in each measure, from beat one to four, stepping on beats one and three. They can also say those numbers louder for emphasis.
    • Notice how your body feels as you march on beat one and beat three.
  • As they keep marching and counting, ask students to clap on beats two and four saying those numbers louder if they can. If this is too challenging, you can divide the class into two groups, with half counting and half clapping.
    • Notice how your body feels as you clap on beats two and four, which are considered the off beats.
    • What differences do you notice in your movement since you added the claps?
  • Trace a “freedom highway” in your classroom or school.
    • What are the landmarks on your freedom highway?
  • March as a class on your “freedom highway,” as you sing and clap, adding percussion instruments to bring out the beat. If you’re marching through the school, encourage others.

Protest Signs

In Make Your Own Protest Sign (PDF), your students will have an opportunity to create their own protest sign to express their hopes, dreams, and demands for change to make the world a better place. You can use the same brainstorming process outlined in the activities in Write Your Own Song. For this activity, they’ll need to distill their message into a few words and images. Once they’ve designed their signs in their student guides, you can adapt them to larger versions to hang up, or if you would like students to experience their own march of protest based on what issues are important to them, they can use them when they “take to the streets.”


A Sweet Smell of Roses

Angela Johnson’s A Sweet Smell of Roses offers a perspective on the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of two Black girls who tell their story of marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"A sweet smell of roses" book cover depicting two children watching people march past carrying an American flag


The Youngest Marcher

Meet the youngest known child to be arrested for a civil rights protest in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963, in Cynthia Levinson’s moving picture book that proves you’re never too little to make a difference.

Musical Word Wall

Add the word strong beat to the Musical Word Wall.

Image Credits

“We Shall Overcome” photograph by Thomas Hawk is licensed by CC BY-NC 2.0.

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