Author ORCID Identifier

Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Fine Arts


Music Performance

First Advisor

Dr. Everett McCorvey


How have American Negro Spirituals inspired later generations of oppressed and marginalized people? Which songs of suffering and hope were particularly poignant in providing courage and inspiration? Questions such as these sparked my research journey, reaching a crescendo during a lecture recital on November 10, 2023, and now culminating in a dissertation.

Spirituals inspired Albert Franklin Fisher and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in New York City in 1930 during the Harlem Renaissance and traveled (via phonograph and music books) with Bonhoeffer to Nazi Germany during World War II. In America, spirituals influenced Myles and Zilphia Horton, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in Monteagle, TN at the Highlander Folk School during the 1960s. To say that spirituals were the primary and sole source of their inspiration is an overstatement, but to deny the influence of spirituals in these stories would be an understatement. This dissertation traces the influence of spirituals from enslaved Africans who first created these songs of lament under dehumanizing conditions, longing for freedom and seeking hope, to those who heard their songs and sought justice and freedom from oppression in the twentieth century.

There are two separate studies in this dissertation that share one overarching question: “How did spirituals influence individuals suffering oppression?” The first investigation seeks to understand how spirituals influenced resistance to Nazis through the life and teachings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer during World War II. The second investigation seeks to understand how spirituals influenced civil rights activists involved with the Highlander Folk School, activists such as Myles and Zilphia Horton, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others.

The data is presented chronologically. After the introduction of Chapter One, Chapter Two presents the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer beginning with his childhood, family, and education. It explains the dimensions of his early life that later shaped him (such as his musical abilities, theological curiosities, and diverse Jewish neighbors). The second part of Chapter Two addresses how his time in New York City, particularly his friendship with Albert Frank Fisher at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, introduced him to American Negro Spirituals. As a result, he took gramophone recordings and a published music book of spirituals with him back to Germany. The section also addresses Bonhoeffer’s collection of sheet music and records as well as his understanding of their meaning. The chapter’s final section explores Bonhoeffer’s return to Germany and the influence spirituals had on his life as a pastor and teacher, as well as his decision to join the underground resistance to Hitler.

Chapter Three examines the Highlander Folk School at its beginning with Myles and Zilphia Horton. As a musician and leader at the school, Zilphia promoted folk song community singing, particularly during protests; knowing this history is vital to understanding how “We Shall Overcome” disseminated from the school. Myles’ involvement in civil rights training helped to introduce this song to key leaders of the civil rights movement, and I dedicate the middle portion of this chapter to understanding the history of “We Shall Overcome” and accurately tracing its roots to spirituals. The recent copyright lawsuit that returned “We Shall Overcome” to public domain is also detailed. The conclusion of Chapter Three celebrates the influence of spirituals in the lives of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Finally, the testimonies about singing spirituals during the protests are documented at the end of the chapter under “The Weapon of Song in the Civil Rights Movement.”

These stories of courage under suffering and oppression create an interconnected web of hope that must be heard by future generations. The singing of spirituals teaches history, celebrates diversity, comforts in suffering, inspires courage, develops empathy, and cultivates community. This topic is important to understanding both the historical importance of spirituals and the need to continue to program spirituals in performance. Learning about those who have been inspired by spirituals throughout history will influence others to advocate for justice. The purpose of this dissertation is to promote the performance of American Negro spirituals by locating their continued influence in the lives of those who suffer oppression.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)