There are literally hundreds of songs I could pick that would be, even in some small way, a fitting tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. And by natural extension, the Civil Rights movement Dr. King had such a large part in.
While I’m sure we’re all aware of the history behind him, it should go without saying that without Dr. King and his leadership we may not be where we are today: still some ways to go but light years ahead of where we were and where we came from.
He was a revolutionary in the truest sense of the word. To take millions of rightfully and righteously pissed off people who endured some of the most brutal acts of violence and pure hatred and bring them together in a movement based on love and non-violence was, in itself, nothing short of a miracle. To succeed in the way he did was nothing short of divine, either.
We will always remember Dr. King for the incredible human being he was and in the non-traditional way he did what he did. And so today, I wanted to venture from the beaten path of common civil rights songs that defined the movement and a generation. Instead, I want to give you a few songs that still pay the utmost tribute to MLK and Civil Rights to a tune you may not have heard before.
But first, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give mention to this song which is perhaps the single most defining song of Civil Rights:
Sam Cooke “A Change Is Gonna Come”
Billie Holiday “Strange Fruit”
I know what you may be thinking… this song was written and recorded well before the Civil Rights movement (as we know it) began. And you’re right, it was.
However, Civil Rights has been known by many names over the centuries. At one time it was referred to as the Abolitionist movement. Civil Rights has always existed as long as any semblance of this nation has existed, regardless of the form or name it took.
And this song was still about the grave injustices of the Southern whites towards blacks during Billie’s time and for hundreds of years before. It’s the quintessential song about the bleak reality of what it meant to be black for many centuries.
And make no mistake that even though she specifies the South as the place of her frustration, fear and “fruit”, this song could easily be applied to any part of this country in the pre-Civil Rights era and to some extent, post-Civil Rights.
John Coltrane “Alabama”
This might seem like a strange song and totally unrelated to civil rights but in fact, it was inspired by a single event that occurred on September 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama known as the 16th St. Church Bombing or the Birmingham Church bombing.
The church was being used by certain Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. himself and fellow leader Ralph David Abernathy.
The bomb exploded on a Sunday morning as children entered the basement area of the church for a Sunday School sermon. The blast killed 14-year olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and 11-year old Denise McNair. 22 others were also injured.
It was a tragic day and the eulogy for the funeral service of three of the Birmingham girls (a separate service was held for Carole Robertson) was delivered by Dr. King himself in an impassioned and very heartfelt speech.
In John Coltrane’s memorial tribute to the girls, the tone is very somber. In fact, very reminiscent of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit”. There are no lyrics to the song. And if you’re John Coltrane, you don’t need lyrics because the music speaks for itself.
It’s said that this song was composed to the cadence of Dr. King’s eulogy speech for the victims, though I’m unsure of the validity of this statement, it would seem fitting and a touch only a master like Coltrane could put on a beautiful and moving piece of music.