Movement Music: A Playlist for MLK Day

The civil rights movement birthed not only great leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., but also scores of songs that will live on to tell the various stories of black America's inspiration, provocation and often disappointment through the years. Here are some of our favorite songs -- old and new -- that embody what King was all about.

Image 1
  • 'We Shall Overcome,' Mahalia Jackson

    'We Shall Overcome,' Mahalia Jackson

    We Shall Overcome” is a key protest song from the civil rights era. The song, which has been performed by Mahalia Jackson and many others, underscores that there really is no separation between church and state in the black community — the political is both personal and spiritual.

    Captions by Abdul Ali

  • 'A Change Is Gonna Come,' Sam Cooke

    'A Change Is Gonna Come,' Sam Cooke

    Waiting for change typifies the experience of black people in America during so many campaigns for human rights. Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is timeless because it captures that longing in song.

  • 'Someday We'll All Be Free,' Aretha Franklin

    'Someday We'll All Be Free,' Aretha Franklin

    Freedom was the issue at the heart of the civil rights movement. Though Donny Hathaway did wonders with “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” Aretha Franklin made it the song hers with a version that graced the conclusion of Spike Lee’s 1992 film, Malcolm X.

  • 'Mississippi Goddam,' Nina Simone

    'Mississippi Goddam,' Nina Simone

    Although many of Nina Simone’s songs from the 1960s capture the spirit of the civil rights movement, “Mississippi Goddam” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” could be the sound track to the era because of their ability to touch on the remarkable human drama that made the 1960s a revolutionary time.

  • 'Get Up Stand Up,' Bob Marley

    'Get Up Stand Up,' Bob Marley

    Bob Marley’s reggae tune “Get Up Stand Up” speaks to the global liberation struggle of black people. It’s a timeless incantation — you can bop while you’re holding your picket sign.

  • 'Inner City Blues,' Marvin Gaye

    'Inner City Blues,' Marvin Gaye

    Inner City Blues” depicts the tough conditions of urban life in America. When we consider the race riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the deferred war on poverty and the rampant police brutality — it simply makes you wanna holler.

  • 'I Find It Hard to Say,' Lauryn Hill

    'I Find It Hard to Say,' Lauryn Hill

    In “I Find It Hard to Say,” Lauryn Hill responds to the NYPD’s shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed street vendor, in 1999. This is one of the many examples of how music can comment on social and political issues that often go unaddressed in the mainstream media.

  • 'Optimistic,' Sounds of Blackness

    'Optimistic,' Sounds of Blackness

    This funky 1990s tune celebrates perseverance in the face of adversity. The refrain “You can win, as long as you keep your head to the sky,” is a sentiment embodied by civil rights workers.

  • 'Living for the City,' Stevie Wonder

    'Living for the City,' Stevie Wonder

    The 1973 song “Living for the City” captured the economic realities of the South for many African Americans trying to find employment. As a result, many of them had to relocate up North, where new racial tensions and barriers awaited, to start a new life in the city.

  • 'Motherless Child/Freedom,' Richie Havens

    'Motherless Child/Freedom,' Richie Havens

    Motherless Child/Freedom” is an example of how important folk singers were to the movement. Their ability to talk to a multicultural audience and spread the message was invaluable. One of the few black performers at the historic Woodstock Festival, Richie Havens stands shoulder to shoulder with Odetta, Bob Dylan and other folk singers of his time.

  • 'Pride,' U2

    'Pride,' U2

    In the decades following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, many artists have created tributary works about his life. U2’s 1984 “Pride (In the Name of Love) ” is a heartfelt tribute not only to King but to the multiracial coalitions that made up the civil rights movement.

  • 'If You're Out There,' John Legend

    'If You're Out There,' John Legend

    John Legend’s “If You’re Out There” is a poignant example of the new generation of musicians who are interested in continuing the work of the civil rights generation. In the song, Legend admonishes us that we should look not outside for a leader but, rather, within ourselves.

  • 'I Have a Dream,' Common

    'I Have a Dream,' Common

    Though Common’s 2006 song “I Have a Dream” features a sample of King’s famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, his song departs from King’s words. Common’s dream is about spiritual rejuvenation of the self — a lovely interpretation.

  • 'War,' Edwin Starr

    'War,' Edwin Starr

    Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. became increasingly outspoken about the war in Vietnam. When Edwin Starr asks in his 1970 song what war is good for, he also gives the answer: “Absolutely nothing.”

  • 'Where Is the Love?' Black Eyed Peas

    'Where Is the Love?' Black Eyed Peas

    When the popular ensemble Black Eyed Peas ask, “Where Is the Love?” in this 2003 song, they denounce hate and create a stirring harmony around a basic theme — which, if heeded, could change the world.

  • 'Like a King,' Ben Harper

    'Like a King,' Ben Harper

    In “Like a King,” singer Ben Harper compares the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.’s America to Rodney King’s nightmare. This is another meditative song about the legacy of police brutality in the black community.

  • 'The Star Spangled Banner,' Jimi Hendrix

    'The Star Spangled Banner,' Jimi Hendrix

    Black folks’ relationship to the American flag is complicated — we love our country, but our country hasn’t always loved us back. To hear Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” performed at Woodstock, is to experience auditory beauty. Hendrix’s guitar sings, and it’s enough to make you misty-eyed.

Comments