Martin Luther King Jr.—His fight and legacy in 7 songs
“I have a dream…” In his iconic speech of August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. described an American nation free from the racism that divided it. Half a century later, his message continues to resonate. Over the decades, he has inspired numerous artists fighting for peace and equal rights. A look at some of the compositions that have immortalized his vision in song.
Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist pastor and civil rights activist, has been hailed as a powerful leader in the fight against racial discrimination—yet he relied on nonviolent forms of protest, never militant aggression. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he cautioned the crowds who gathered to hear his inspirational words. This commitment to peaceful civil disobedience is commemorated in the songs written over the years by diverse artists wishing to amplify and share his message.
Nina Simone — “Why (The King of Love is Dead)”
This song was written and performed by Nina Simone just days after Dr. King’s assassination. Worried about the fate of her African American brothers and sisters, her words are mournful yet powerful. “Will my country fall, stand or fall? / Is it too late for us all? / And did Martin Luther King just die in vain?” she sings, her melancholy voice backed by delicate piano.
Stevie Wonder – “Happy Birthday”
In 1980, Stevie Wonder chose to honor the memory of Martin Luther King with a joyful song, complete with a driving base line and festive synthesizer. He sings “Happy Birthday” both to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy and promote the campaign to make his birthday, January 15, a national holiday.
In November 1983, his wish became reality: Ronald Reagan signed the law making the third Monday of January a statutory holiday in the United States, in tribute to this famous activist.
U2 – “Pride (In the Name of Love)” et “MLK”
Though Martin Luther King is never explicitly named in the song “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, it is absolutely clear that he is the inspiration. The song centers on the morning of April 4, 1969, the day that this civil rights hero was assassinated. U2 describes a somber day in the United States and a fight that must be carried on with dignity. Starting with a powerful guitar riff that forever changed rock music, the song upholds MLK’s pacifist ideals, and the notion of a war fought “in the name of love”.
Bono, U2’s charismatic frontman, didn’t stop there, however. The same 1984 album that features “Pride (In the Name of Love”), The Unforgettable Fire, also includes the song “MLK”, whose lyrics speak directly to the deceased. “Sleep / Sleep tonight / And may your dreams / Be realized,” Bono sings softly. A lullaby with universal words.
Queen — “One Vision”
This 1985 song tells the story of a nameless man who has dedicated his life to fighting oppression. In 2011, Queen drummer Roger Taylor confirmed to BBC journalists that the song was mostly inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., whose “I Have a Dream” speech is echoed in the lyrics. The song combines synthesizer, guitar and drums, building into a pop-rock melody with psychedelic momentum. This song is one of the rare few with words written by all four band members.
Public Enemy — “By the Time I Get to Arizona”
This song’s outraged lyrics were penned in reaction to the people of Arizona voting down a proposal to create a state holiday for Dr. King, just two years after the governor canceled MLK day. This was in 1990, already 22 years after MLK’s assassination, but his struggles continued to resonate and the response was colossal. The holiday was fortunately reinstated by the people of Arizona in 1993. The song became the seventh track on the album Apocalypse 91 … The Enemy Strikes Black.
Ben Harper — “Like A King”
One of the kings of American folk music, Ben Harper offered a more cynical take on Martin Luther King’s legacy in his 1994 song. “Like a King” appeared on his album Welcome to the Cruel World, and likened the fate of the pastor to that of Rodney King, an African American who fell victim to police brutality in the early 1990s. Harper evokes a United States of America that isn’t yet free from the shackles of its racist history.
This overview of songs inspired by the life and works of Martin Luther King Jr. is just that—an overview. It would be remiss to ignore the countless other songs of hope and rebellion that have accompanied the fight for civil rights from 1960 onwards.
Songs by artists such as Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington and Donny Hathaway will all be featured in the show We Shall Overcome, created by musical director Damien Sneed.
Place des Arts will have the honor of welcoming this show in January 2020 (Presale January 24).