Dawson describes the three movements:
The first movement contains a simple musical motif that represents “the link [that] was taken out of a human chain when the first African was taken from the shores of his native land and sent to slavery.”
The 2nd movement, "Hope in the Night," is an "atmosphere of the humdrum life of a people whose bodies were baked by the sun and lashed with the whip for two hundred and fifty years; whose lives were proscribed before they were born."
The final movement quotes two spirituals, "O Le' Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!" and "Hallelujah, Lord, I Been Down Into the Sea."
After a trip to West Africa in 1952, Dawson revised the Symphony with added African rhythms to convey a more authentic "rhythmic foundation strongly inspired by African influences.” The “Negro Folk Symphony” by William Dawson is today’s Midday Masterpiece at 2:00 pm.