Best wishes to you all around the world on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day! The nationally observed holiday set aside to honor the righteous civil rights advocate in the United States may be an American invention, but we can all appreciate his message of peaceful unity for all colors, creeds, and heritages. The actual annual recognition of his triumphs took some time and doing, but late is certainly better than never in this case. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968 while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where he had stayed many times before. Following his murder, many throughout the country and the world called for a day celebrating King. The consensus was to make his birthday on January 15th a day of remembrance of his work. And… nothing came to be, but that did not stop the MLK Day machine. Stevie Wonder even made this funky song lobbying for a holiday in his honor, appropriately called “Happy Birthday”:
It was not until the 1980s that the federally recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day officially arose. Ever since, we Americans have remembered him fondly on the third Monday of January. Yet while King himself was an American and worked for fairer treatment of those downtrodden by racism in his country, his hope was not confined to the Land of the Free that clearly was not so free for everyone. Others in the West took notice and admired the man similarly to how they admired his own hero, Mahatma Gandhi. The efforts of non-violent protests were effective for both at the expense of their lives, and that aspect is not lost on some key creative forces who sought to give artistic support to the American Civil Rights movement and share in King and his fellows’ vision for a more friendly world. Today, I am highlighting three songs that were inspired by this movement, racial tension that led to it, and hope for a better tomorrow.
“A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke – Cooke wrote this song in reaction to personal experiences with oppression in America, especially when he and his band were kicked out of a Holiday Inn in Louisiana. He felt frustrated by the way of things, and set out to create a song that encompassed his hopes for a more promising tomorrow where his “brother”, a.k.a. the laws that should protect his freedoms don’t infringe upon them.
Cooke was additionally inspired to compose his song in the style he did after hearing and loving Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” which serves as the consummate philosophical protest song with Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin'”.
“Blackbird” by The Beatles – Paul McCartney has said he wrote this as a sort of gentle cheering on of the people suffering for asking for the basic human rights they deserve. While it’s possible that McCartney had a more spiritual meaning in mind when he first wrote the song, it fits remarkably well with as a calm encouragement of perseverance for the large and small champions of the civil rights movement. The blackbird’s broken wings are representative of the torment that black Americans were enduring. Like Cooke’s song, “Blackbird” looks to a literally brighter future.
“Pride (In the Name of Love)” by U2 – One of my absolute favorite songs ever since I first heard it, and one that I did not comprehend the full meaning off until much later. I remember picking up on the obvious reference to Martin Luther King’s assassination in the final verse (granted Bono erroneously wrote and sang “Early morning” when it actually happened at 6:01 PM; later renditions were changed to “Early evening”) when I was in high school and it was then that I delved in to actually taking a peek at the lyrics. As it happens, the lyrics are not as deep as Bono would have liked them to be. He wanted to explore the duality of protest by comparing and contrasting MLK and Malcolm X. The Edge and the band’s producer, Brian Eno (old sourpuss), opted to place more emphasis on the energy of the song to illicit a grander emotional response from the listener. While I admit the lyrics are a bit vapid, I am inclined to agree with I’m-gonna-make-this-guitar-sound-like-not-a-guitar and old sourpuss that the rhythm of the song captures the spirit of celebration of the life and work of men and women like Martin Luther King Jr. It inspired this post after all, and hopefully will inspire the continuation of working to live together more amenably in a world where the American Civil Rights Movement happened a long time ago, and should not be forgotten, or, more concernedly, assumed to have done its job completely.
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In the Name of Love,