This week marked Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a celebration of the civil right activist’s incredible life, held to mark what would have been his birthday. Here, then, are 11 empowering civil rights anthems that champion the cause he dedicated himself to.
Billie Holiday, ‘Strange Fruit’
Penned by Abe Meeropol, a songwriter who adapted the tune from his own poem, this extraordinary lament at lynchings of African-American people is widely considered the first ever protest song. It stunned New York audiences when Holiday began to perform the song in 1939, and no singer has managed to come close to eclipsing her haunting, harrowing delivery, as though she’s dredging her aching heart into the words.
Marvin Gaye, ‘Abraham, Martin John’
The ‘Martin’ here is Luther King, Jr. The song was written and first recorded by American songwriter Dion, but it’s Gaye’s version that has become legend. Lyrically, the song links the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, King, Jr. and, though he’s not included in the title, Senator Robert Kennedy, whose death directly inspired Dion to write the song. When Gaye, on his 1970 version, sings that “he freed a lot of people”, it’s impossible not to think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s incredible contribution to the civil rights movement.
The Beatles, ‘Blackbird’
Speaking onstage before he performed the song, Paul McCartney once explained how he wrote it. “I was in Scotland playing on my guitar,” he said,” and I remembered this whole idea of ‘You were only waiting for this moment to arise’ was about, you know, the black people’s struggle in the southern states, and I was using the symbolism of a blackbird.” No wonder ‘Blackbird’ is thought to be one of the Top 10 most covered songs of all time.
Sam Cooke, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’
Posthumously released as the B-side to Cooke’s good-time single ‘Shake’, this lush protest number was inspired by Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, a song whose social conscience Cooke was enamoured with. “I was born by the river,” he sings, “And just like the river I’ve been running ever since”, a line that encapsulates both his personal journey to fame and fortune and the fact that could never ever escape persecution due to the colour of his skin.
Nina Simone, ‘Mississippi Goddamn’
The first time she performed ‘Mississippi Goddamn’, at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Nina Simone described the song as “a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet”. Yet the message here is anything but escapist. When she sings “Alabama’s gotten me so upset, Tennessee’s made me lose my rest,” she’s referring to two states that had played host violent, racist incidents. By the time she’s moved on to Mississippi, then a place for treating African-American citizens appallingly, there’s only one word for it: ‘goddamn’.
Gil Scott-Heron, ’95 South (All of the Places We’ve Been)’
A tribute to civil rights and feminist activist Fannie Lou Hamer, this is a louche-sounding track that, similarly to Simone’s contribution to the canon, belies its serious nature, as Heron raises a glass to “dreams once envisioned by folks much braver than me”. Yet the fact that it’s a pleasant song is actually key, given that Scott-Heron once said, “Your life has to consist of more than ‘black people should unite’. You hope they do, but not 24 hours a day. If you aren’t having no fun, die, because you’re running a worthless programme, as far as I’m concerned”.
Bob Dylan, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”
Sam Cooke may have been most moved by ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, but it’s another Dylan song that is best remembered for its contribution to the civil rights movement, for its encapsulation of that era in the late ’60s when folk music overlapped with the cause. The soundtrack to an era in which those old prejudices were being challenged and confronted like never before, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” has remained relevant ever since.
Mahalia Jackson, ‘We Shall Overcome’
Thought to have first been sung by striking tobacco workers in South Carolina in 1945, the song became inextricably linked to the civil rights movement, largely thanks to this powerful rendition from New Orleans gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, once described by actor and musician Harry Belafonte as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. In her version, Mahalia, who performed (a different gospel protest song, ‘How I Got Over’) minutes before Luther King, Jr. delivered his 1963 ‘I have a dream…’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, it becomes a hopeful paean to the power of people.
Odetta, ‘This Land’
Again, we see how folk music and the civil rights movement became entwined in 1960s America. First recorded by the enormously influential folk musician Woody Guthrie in 1944, the song takes on another dimension when sung by Alabama’s Odetta, who is often dubbed ‘the voice of the civil rights movement’. “This land is your land, this land is my land,” she sings, concluding, “this land was made for you and me,” a powerful rebuke against segregation.
Public Enemy, ‘Fight The Power’
Chuck D and the gang used words a blunt instrument, here repeating the song’s simple yet powerful titular refrain. The track, though, is actually deeply complex, sampling quotes from civil rights attorney and activist Thomas “TNT” Todd, a drum break from James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’ and many more references to black and African-American politics and music. This creates a cacophony of sound and voices, all uniting and coming to head with Public Enemy’s insistence that we ‘Fight The Power’. No wonder Spike Lee had the track play throughout his incendiary 1989 race-relations comedy drama Do The Right Thing.
James Brown, ‘Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud’
The godfather of soul’s empowering anthem celebrated its 50th birthday last year, and has lost none of its invigorating energy across its five-decade run. Brown’s politics were often controversial, given that he endorsed Richard Nixon for re-election in 1972, but the fact that – somewhat outlandishly – he performed ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’ at Nixon’s Inaugural Ball in 1969 is a testament to his powerful voice in the civil rights movement.