The Music of Martin Luther King Jr.
    • TUESDAY, JANUARY 17, 2017

    • Posted by: Robert Steiner

    In case you were wondering why all the post offices were closed yesterday, the third Monday of January is when we honor the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most iconic and influential leaders of the Civil Rights Era. Many often remember MLK for his passionate and poignant speeches, and rightfully so, because even to this day you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who can speak and inspire people as effectively as Dr. King. Along with his words, music often comes up as well when you look into Dr. King's story and legacy, as there really is no better way to follow his message of peaceful protest than through songs, lyrics, and self-expression.

    Before the Civil Rights Movement even began, it was music and art that initially inspired kids like King to eventually grow up and try to break the color lines throughout the US. While the 1960s were arguably one of the greatest periods for protest music, you can find moments long before then that show people expressing their hope for a better future through song. In 1939, for example, opera star Marian Anderson was told she could not perform at the Washington DC venue, Constitution Hall, due to the color of her skin. The venue's owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution, denied Anderson access to the venue despite the singer's status as one of the best opera singers at the time. However, one of the DAR's members was Eleanor Roosevelt, who was so disgusted by the decision that she resigned from the group and, along with the support from her husband, arranged it so that Anderson could perform in DC on Easter Sunday. To say the change of venue was an upgrade would be an understatement: At the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson performed "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" in front of 100,000 people, along with millions listening on the radio. Dr. King himself would directly cite the performance as a highly formative moment in his life, and he would even invite Anderson to sing again at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 before his "I Have A Dream" speech.

    While traditional staples like "We Shall Overcome" became the thesis of the Civil Rights Movement, many popular and modern artists of the time heard Dr. King's words and reflected his message through their own music. As an ally from the folk music community, Bob Dylan became the leading, albeit reluctant, voice of an entire generation of young people who wanted change, thanks to his socially conscious songs that followed Dr. King's lead of stirring change through words. "The Times They Are A-Changin,'" for example, is a literal call to action, encouraging kids, parents, writers, and politicians alike to help create a new era of peace and tolerance, becoming both a prominent Civil Rights and folk anthem. "Blowin' In The Wind" is another uplifting Dylan track that, while acknowledging the many problems we face as a society, remains optimistic of the future and our collective ability to bring about change. The song cemented itself in the Civil Rights story after Peter, Paul, & Mary performed it before Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

    Nina Simone showed her support for Dr. King and social change with the 1965 classic "Mississippi Goddam," which blatantly denounced the rampant racism in the South and called for equality in terms everyone could understand. Simone most notably performed the song at Dr. King's Selma to Montgomery march for 10,000 people, even while the song was banned from all Southern radio stations. After the 1963 Birmingham Church Bombings, John Coltrane listened to Dr. King's eulogy for the victims, and in the spirit of peaceful protest over the tragedy, he wrote and recorded "Alabama," modeling his solo off King's speech pattern from the eulogy. In 1968, the Beatles, arguably one of the most influential voices in the music world by the late 60s, released the song "Blackbird," which Paul McCartney wrote in tribute to Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement.

    Even after his assassination in 1968, Dr. King continues to inspire artists to use art as a means of carrying on his message and legacy. In response to Dr. King's death, James Brown released "Say It Loud- I'm Black and I'm Proud" as a defiant anthem against racism that all African Americans could embrace. In 1971, Marvin Gaye released the groundbreaking What's Going On, an album that has set the bar for socially conscious music of all genres and whose message still remains relevant to this day. U2 unexpectedly ended up writing one of the most powerful and direct tributes to Dr. King with 1981's "Pride (In The Name of Love)," a song that celebrates MLK's life and shows that his words still resonate with people to this day.

    All of these artists and bands mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg, as there are now decades' worth of music that champions King's hope and determination for civil liberty. More than 50 years after King told us all his Dream, we can still see he words inspire artists today, and though we currently live in uncertain times, it's crucial to remember how far we have come thanks to King's influence. Take John Legend and Common performing "Glory," a loving tribute to King and the Civil Rights Movement, on national television, and winning an Oscar for it just moments later. Or consider how Beyonce sings about being a proud, black woman while also being one of the most successful artists of all time. Or even think about how amazing it is that a certain musical about the American Revolution, with our Founding Fathers being played by people of color, not only exists, but also is one of the most successful stage shows of all time. All of these accomplishments may not have been possible without King's work and guidance, and while there's certainly work to be done, it's important to occasionally stop and reflect about what's been changed for the better.

    Music and art not only reminds us of where we've been, but also how far we've come, and how much farther we need to go, and it's safe to say that Kings words will continue to inspire not only amazing art, but also amazing actions by everyday people who hope for something better.

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