Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Kidada E. Williams


The U.S. civil rights movement is almost always presented as an undisputed success in mainstream culture and educational curricula, but scholars continue to question whether the widespread protests against racial segregation and inequality that swept the nation in the 1950s and 1960s led to meaningful economic, or social change. These criticisms extend to shifts in popular culture and the emergence of rock and roll music, which, as many contemporary critics noted, were areas where racial integration had already occurred. Since rock and roll emerged from both African-American and European-American cultural traditions, it introduced both black

and white listeners to sounds and styles indicative of different racial backgrounds that were simultaneously integrated with musical elements that were still familiar to them. This new genre

helped to encourage cross-racial identification among some young listeners. In "Deliver Me From the Days of Old: Rock and Roll Music, Youth Culture, and the Civil Rights Movement," I argue that rock and roll music converged with widespread media coverage of civil rights

activism to encourage support for the desegregation of public spaces and moderate racial equality among certain groups of middle-class white and black teenagers during the 1950s and


Many historians agree that rock and roll had the potential to disrupt racial divisions, but that music industry exploitation, as well as persistent political and economic oppression that overtook cultural integration, prevented it from doing so. Others note a correlation between changing racial politics and the birth of rock and roll, but do not explicitly show how this genre, and the decisions teenagers made to embrace it, emerged within a civil rights context that promoted integration as a positive change. While all of these historians offer insight into the origins of rock and roll, their accounts ignore the fact that teenage rock and roll fans made their own decisions about music and culture that were informed by, and contributed to, the emergence of a national movement for racial integration. When these decisions are ignored, the origin story

of rock and roll music becomes one of exploitation rather than one of cultural integration. Although many rock and roll fans did not become politically active in the civil rights movement, they were not the passive consumers of popular culture that they are often depicted

as. The choices they made to listen to and embrace this music and the artists who performed it constitute a form of political consciousness in light of the strict censures that existed in both the

North and the South against racial integration. Since most rock and roll fans did not flock to sit-ins or voter registration drives, many scholars have assumed that the music's appeal was mostly

aesthetic, and that teenagers who did not explicitly participate in movement activities were fairly apolitical. And yet, the ways they acted and communicated in both public and private spaces during this period indicates a shift in thinking that is in keeping with moderate civil rights goals.

But this viewpoint ignores the changing attitudes and behaviors exhibited by many people born during and after World War Two, which ultimately led to at least tacit support for the desegregation of public spaces and moderate racial equality among black and white youth. Black teenagers usually supported actions against segregation, and often suffered the direct repercussions when entering previously all-white schools or breaking racial barriers at

concert halls. Most stated that they would only work for integration if they were treated with full respect and dignity, not if they were expected to adjust to white norms. White youth were not as

aware of the challenges facing their black contemporaries, but many were eager to resist conformist Cold War culture and politics, the expansion of the military-industrial complex, unregulated capitalist development, and overt racial segregation and discrimination, even outside of traditional Southern boundaries. Rock and roll music therefore helped young people to talk about race relations and discrimination in both public and private spaces, and to challenge racial norms during the civil rights movement. Even though racial discrimination and structural racism did not disappear, this new middle ground, shaped by a popular new art form, helped young

people of both races find ways to communicate across supposedly rigid racial lines.