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MLK and the Songs of the Civil Rights Movement


WINDSOR TERRACE — When a bus driver in Montgomery, Alabama, demanded that a young Black woman named Rosa Parks give up her seat in the non-Black designated section of the bus, so began the civil rights movement in earnest. 

Parks’ arrest in 1955 caused the nation to look inward and face the inequality and injustice that had long been fermenting throughout the nation. It would take the resilient faith and eloquence of Dr. Martin Luther King to finally rally supporters from all across the country to join together for the peaceful March on Washington on August 28, 1963, with the primary purpose of establishing civil rights legislation and job equality for everyone.

“We Shall Overcome” became the anthem of the movement thanks to folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, who embraced the song, an adaptation of an Italian hymn first published in 1901 by Charles Albert Tindley under the title “I’ll Overcome Someday.” The song also has deeper roots in the Catholic hymn “O Sanctissima,” which dates back to 1792.

“We Shall Overcome” was performed by other prominent folk singers of the ’60s, including Joan Baez, who sang the song at the March on Washington. 

Four days before his assassination on April 4, 1968, Dr. King recited the words to “We Shall Overcome” at his final sermon at a church in Memphis, Tennessee, reminding the crowd of his fervent hope that, “We shall overcome, we shall overcome someday; Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.” 

Along with King’s own poetry in his “I Have a Dream” speech, the song helped cement the notion that African-Americans could persevere with the goal of equal freedoms for all humankind.

Similarly, “I Shall Not Be Moved” is another spiritual hymn associated with the civil rights movement after it was adapted into the more secular “We Shall Not Be Moved” and performed by gospel singer Mavis Staples. The lyric addressed the unrest at the time with lines like, “We shall not be moved, we’re fighting for our freedom, we shall not be moved.”

Songs of Inequality and Injustice

Songs of inequality and injustice date back decades before Dr. King. For example, gospel and blues artist Billie Holiday bravely performed the song “Strange Fruit,” in 1939. The song described the violent lynching of Blacks in the South. It was written in 1937 by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from New York who felt compelled to shine a light on the tragic situation. He explained that he wrote the song because “I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it.”

Through the years, other artists — including Diana Ross, Jeff Buckley, and Nina Simone — recorded “Strange Fruit.” Simone contributed her own civil rights anthem with the candid “Mississippi Goddam,” prompted by the assassination of Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963. Simone angrily railed at the injustice while clearly expressing her lack of faith in mankind: “Lord have mercy on this land of mine, we all gonna get it in due time; I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there; I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.”

Evers’ murder also inspired a young folk singer from Hibbing, Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman, who changed modern music when he came to New York and became Bob Dylan. Dylan’s 1964 protest ballad “Only a Pawn in Their Game” opens starkly with the words, “A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood,” and goes on to indict the white Southern politicians for turning a blind eye to the injustice and inequality and keeping the fires of segregation burning by inciting poor whites to hate their Black neighbors with the powerful lyric, “A South politician preaches to the poor white man; You got more than the Blacks, don’t complain; You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,” they explain.”

Dylan ultimately became the musical driving force of the civil rights movement when he recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the opening track of his classic 1963 album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” It became the anthem of a generation when Peter, Paul & Mary released it as a single, reaching No. 3 on the pop chart that same year. The lyrics were a revelation served up as a series of posed questions, “Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free; Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see; The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

Dylan seemed to address Dr. King and what was happening in the country at the time with his prophetic ballad “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Recorded by a diverse group of artists over the years — including The Byrds, Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen — it has served as a rallying cry to bring people together.

Dylan’s songs carried the weight of the civil rights movement from early compositions like “The Death of Emmett Till,” about the 1955 lynching of a Black teenager in Money, Mississippi and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a brutally frank ballad written by Dylan about a hard-working Black barmaid who was beaten to death by a drunken white tobacco farmer.

“When the Ship Comes In,” which Dylan also wrote, evokes the promise of what will someday be when the perpetrators of racism are finally held accountable for their crimes in the lines: “Then they’ll raise their hands, sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands; But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered; And like Pharaoh’s tribe, they’ll be drownded (sic) in the tide; And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.”

Other artists and activists were inspired by Dr. King’s message of hope just as Dylan had been, and picked up the mantle of earlier musical revolutionaries like Seeger and Woody Guthrie. After hearing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Sam Cooke wrote, “A Change is Gonna Come.” 

Released in 1965, “Change” remains one of the bravest and most enduring songs of the generation. Cooke, who grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, was familiar with the Jim Crow South’s injustice. He expressed it in the opening lines, “I was born by the river, in a little tent; Oh, and just like the river I’ve been running ever since.” He ultimately reveals the pain he endured when he sings, “Then I go to my brother; And I say, brother, help me please; But he winds up, knockin’ me back down on my knees.” The song ends with the hope that this kind of injustice will halt as Cooke pleads, “It’s been a long, a long time coming; But I know a change is gonna come, Oh, yes it will.”

Other songs echoed the message of freedom from injustice, such as “If I Had a Hammer,” written by Seeger and Lee Hays of The Weavers in 1958. It made the Billboard Top 10 for Peter, Paul & Mary in 1962 and reached No. 3 for Trini Lopez one year later. Johnny Cash won a Grammy for his performance of the song in 1972 with its potent message of hammering out danger, warning, and “love between my brothers and my sisters.”

Dylan’s musical activism would inspire Cash to compose his own songs addressing civil rights. His 1965 album “Orange Blossom Special” included three Dylan covers along with his own “All God’s Children Ain’t Free,” wherein he admits, “I’d sing more about more of this land, but all God’s children ain’t free; I’d open up every door I can ’cause all God’s children ain’t free.”

Following Dr. King’s death, songs became a way to eulogize his passing, like Dion’s classic “Abraham, Martin & John,” James Taylor’s “Shed a Little Light,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday.” Singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson may have summarized Dr. King’s legacy best in his song “They Killed Him,” which lamented the tragic deaths of peaceful revolutionaries including Mahatma Gandhi, John Kennedy, and Jesus Christ.

Recorded by a number of artists including Dylan and Cash, it reminds us that, “Another man from Atlanta, Georgia name of Martin Luther King; He shook the land like a rolling thunder and made the bells of freedom ring today; With a dream of beauty that they could not take away; Just another holy man who dared to make a stand; My God, they killed him.”

While Dr. King was cut down in his prime, his message still rings loud and clear. And while his dream has not been completely realized, the songs that were sung along the road to freedom still resonate powerfully with us today as we continue to embrace and be moved by the teachings of Dr. King and the songs of the civil rights movement.

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