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The pivotal musical performances at the Martin Luther King Jr marches and their legacy


The times they are a-changing, they always have been, and they always will be. We might think of our current era as a period of unruly unrest, but tumult has forever beset society it would seem. However, within it, there are also beacons of hope and although tragedy may have befallen Martin Luther King Jr in the end, his legacy of hope is one that rises above that and sustains to this day. 

The civil rights pioneer was not only conscious of what needed to be done, but he was also aware of how to do it. From the very start he galvanised the arts behind him and used music as a driving force for the movement. As the beat writer William S. Burroughs once wrote: “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”

As he boldly toured the country on marches the braved threats at every turn, he drew upon a range of artists and musicians embolden the stance for justice. As for his favourite artists, he believed they had the ability to take the “hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.”

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This viewpoint not only gave the marches that millions of civil rights activists embarked upon in the 1960s a sense of defiant spiritualism as well as a political necessity, but that ethos still endures to this age. In the wake of the recent Black Live Matter movement, we have had stunning progressive albums that lean on history like the counterculture albums from jazz, folks, blues and beyond before them with the likes of last year’s Sons of Kemet album Black to the Future and many more.

Modern music by its very nature speaks of progress and transfiguring suffering into change. From its origins on plantations, it soon flooded onto the streets in places like Congo Square and other gathering places with freedom was celebrated in a joyously collective sense. As Nina Simone once said: “Funk, gospel and blues is all out of slavery times, out of depression, out of sorrow.” And it is most definitely beautifully unbowed poetry etched into the margin of bloodied print.

Below we are looking at some of the most pivotal protest anthems to come out of the marches that just so happened to be caught on camera, and looking beyond them at the songs borne from the legacy of those seismic days and the hero behind them. More needs to be done, thus looking at the past is as pertinent and as we can see from the records that have rolled out since, artists are clearly still harnessing the flame.  

Music of the marches and the evolving civil rights movement:

Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson’s life was certainly one that encountered its fair share of hardship. Despite this, she believed that deep down people were inherently good and that this was worth celebrating. With that, she argued, progress would triumph. As she stated: “Gospel music is nothing but singing of good tidings, spreading the good news. It will last as long as any music because it is sung straight from the human heart.” Thus, when Martin Luther King Jr. called upon her, she didn’t flinch in making the daring journey back down south to her homelands.

Thereafter, Mahalia Jackson sang at Selma, the March on Washington and King’s funeral. Along the way, she inspired a new generation of musicians from all walks of life. The defining moment of her inspiring journey came moments before King’s iconic ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. She stood before a crowd of 250,000, spoke of the journey of her people, and delivered an entreaty that stirred millions into motion as she belted out ‘How I Got Over’ in a cleansing wash of rhapsody. For her, this might have been a religious moment, but for many, it spoke a secular message just as profoundly, welcoming gospel into the mix of rock ‘n’ roll. 

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan was a musical force who ensured that emerging pop culture was cognizant of the society it was awakening into. He was only 22 years old he dragged the counterculture up by its hobnail bootstraps and gave it a soundtrack to sing along to. One moment which would go a long way to establish Dylan as the perfunctory poster boy for the movement would be this epic performance of ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ at the monumental 1963 March on Washington. 

As a percussor to the iconic ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, Dylan took to the stage not only as someone lending his name to the cause but as a young man looking to fight the blighting forces of injustice in all of its guises. In this sense, his performance, like the famous speech that rightfully overshadows it in history, extolled a transcendent and timeless message. As he pens in his memoir: “Songs, to me, were more important than just light entertainment. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality. Some different republic, some liberated republic.” 

In the beautiful clip below, that liberated, peaceful republic seems temporarily realised as more than 200,000 people stand in unison, not just politically but spiritually too. 

Joan Baez

In early 1964, when the reverberations of the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech was still ringing out and the civil rights movement was gathering, a national radio station broadcast some of the archived tapes from the march on Washington that previous summer. At one point the host, Alan Wasser, announces: “Joan Baez came all the way from Spain just for this occasion. She doesn’t like to come to the United States and appear more than she has to, but for this one, with no pay, she came and sang ‘All My Troubles, Lord’.”

Thereafter, she sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ and it is one of the most touching recorded moments in the whole Civil Rights Movement to see the hundreds of thousands singing along to the age-old anthem of fortitude and hope. As Baez once said: “I have hope in people, in individuals. Because you don’t know what’s going to rise from the ruins.”

Public Enemy

At the request of the director Spike Lee, who needed a song to serve as the theme for his movie Do the Right Thing, Public Enemy crafted one of the most memorable lines in rap history let alone protests songs with ‘Fight the Power’. The song served as a leitmotif for the film which portrayed mounting racial tension in Brooklyn at the time.

Spike Lee told Time Magazine, “I wanted it to be defiant, I wanted it to be angry, I wanted it to be very rhythmic. I thought right away of Public Enemy.” As bass player Brian Hardgroove, confirmed, “Fight the Power is not about fighting authority—it’s not that at all. It’s about fighting abuse of power.”

It is easy to forget just how hostile a time the 1960s were and the various marches presented real dangers for those participating—the masses participated in spite of that all the same. Public Enemy seem to harness that same emboldened spirit and they do it unapologetically without ever losing sight of the cause. 

Janelle Monnae ft. Wondaland

Sometimes a protest song can seem blunt and unconsidered and, as a result, fall short of what it is trying to achieve. There are some issues, however, that are so morally obvious that a blunt blow is all that is required, especially when the issue of societal racism still remains unreconciled. 

With ‘Hell You Talmbout’ Janelle Monae and members of the Wondaland art collective delivered an important message regarding current race relations and police brutality. The song simply lists the names of black American’s who lost their lives as a result of encounters with law enforcement and/or racial violence, each name strengthening the blunt, simple and necessary message of the song. 

The final declaration of the chant encapsulates the mantra of all protest songs, spawned from the Martin Luther King Jr marches or otherwise: “Silence is the enemy, and sound is the weapon.”