Since 1986, we have commemorated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the third Monday of January. President Ronald Reagan signed a bill in 1983 to create this federal holiday in honor of King after years of campaigning by activities, members of Congress, and Coretta Scott King.
On this day, we honor Dr. King’s legacy and work during the civil rights movement and we reflect on the work that still needs to be done to achieve racial equality.
Dr. King said and did too much for us to include in a single post, so today we would like to focus on his reflections around the power of music and art as forces of healing and change.
Dr. King and Music
Martin Luther King Jr. was not silent about the power of music. He realized how music could give strength, hope, and joy in moments of darkness and struggle.
King explained in his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait that civil rights activists “sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that ‘We shall overcome, Black and white together, We shall overcome someday’” (King, Why, 86).
For Dr. King, the songs of the civil rights movement were a testament of “the long history of the Negro’s suffering” (King, Stride, 86). But they were not just historical record-keepers. They also offered vitality and hope so that despite this history, people could forge ahead towards a brighter future.
“The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle… They give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours” (Shelton, “Songs a Weapon”).”
We Shall Overcome
Folk and protest songs helped make the movement against segregation and racism hugely popular, as well as creating a feeling of community and togetherness among the protesters.
We Shall Overcome became the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement, a song that artists and protestors sung alike.
Many also used their artistry to give expression to their outrage and desire for change. This included artists such as Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Joan Baez, The Staple Singers, Sly & The Family Stone, Harry Belafonte, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and more.
“Martin Luther King did not live to see the changes in his country that the protest movements helped to bring about. He was assassinated in 1968. His tombstone reads “Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty we are free at last!” – the words of an old spiritual with which King ended his famous “Dream” speech in Washington.”
Martin Luther King, Jr and Hip Hop
According to Vann R. Newkirk II writing The Atlantic, King’s death gave birth to hip hop. He explains how the seeds of hip hop were sown “by and during the civil rights movement.” In fact, the riots and turmoil that followed King’s assassination would lead to a number of events that would give birth to hip hop.
“Just like the spirituals invented during slavery, the blues that bubbled up after the collapse of Reconstruction, and the soul that took root during the civil-rights era, hip-hop was in a sense preordained by the social conditions of blackness. It became as much an embrace of the platform and victories for which King fought, and a necessary and careful distancing from the most pervasive pieces of his legacy, from the brand of masculinity stressed as his calling card, from the church, and from respectability. What hip-hop understands most viscerally is that it simply isn’t enough to be like King. King was assassinated for being King.”
King and Art
There are less obvious references to art in King’s body of work. What is obvious is the effect that King’s life (and death) had on artists and art institutions. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, for example, organized an exhibition entitled “In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King” only 7 months after his assassination.
In fact, institutions, both white and black-owned, responded in a myriad of ways to King’s life as they reflected on the artists and exhibitions they supported.
“It is, arguably, the duty of arts organizations to respond to seismic moments in our nation’s history, and it was King’s untimely passing 50 years ago that gave, within the arts, a pronounced fillip to manifestations of cultural diversity and the struggle for racial equality.”
More about Martin Luther King Jr. and music:
The legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continues to reverberate to this day. MLK Day is but one day in which we have it more present, yet the labor should extend beyond today as we seek racial equality in our communities and nation.
We hope that you learned a bit today about how music and art can be forces of change that can accompany the struggle that Dr. King lived and died for.
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