5 Faves: Songs Celebrating MLK’s Dream

Posted January 17, 2011 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s legacy and his dream for world peace and justice, we spin the records that help us all to overcome

Many great songs carry the inspirational vision, the enduring spirit and the theology of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream. For starters, there’s Queen’s “One Vision,” U2’s “MLK” and then there’s Isaac Hayes’ emotional sermonizing on the Bacharach/David composition “The Windows of the World.” And who can resist the sorrowful agonizing of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” or Raheem DeVaughn’s non-violent chorepoem ‘Nobody Wins a War.”

For intermediates, you can always find refuge in Mavis Staples’ pleading on 2007’s “Eyes on the Prize,” or even the late Timothy Wright’s gospel take of “Let Freedom Ring.”

But we decided at HiFi Magazine to narrow down our selection to five musical faves that earnestly celebrates the legacy of Dr. King, in a pretty decent manner.

UPDATED //  [1/21/13]
We have also added a cool Spotify playlist featuring tracks that pay homage to the values of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. The 24-track set features a sweet display of rock, pop, r&b and beyond. Look for it at the bottom of the page.


Donny Hathaway
“Someday We’ll All Be Free”

In the spirit of the peaceful hymn “We Shall Overcome,” Donny Hathaway sings this song with the type of serenity that points toward a brighter tomorrow. The lyrics were penned by Edward Howard and was originally meant to be a salve for Hathaway as he struggled with his own depression and mental anguish. But as the years toiled along – especially with it being recorded in 1973 just a few years after Dr. King’s unfortunate assassination –  the song has taken on new meaning. And you can hear it when Hathaway sings with unfettered passion: “Keep on walking tall/Hold your head up high/Lay your dreams right up to the sky/Sing your greatest song/And you’ll keep going on/Just wait and see someday we’ll all be free.” He wasn’t singing just for himself. He was singing for us all.



“Pride In the Name of Love”

Released as a single on The Unforgettable Fire, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” is a mesmeric work of rock poetry absorbing the tensions and frustrations of the civil rights movement. Deep in the song, Bono recounts the day of his assassination (“Shot rings out in the Memphis sky, Free at last, they took your life”), although one of the pieces of detail was incorrect (“Early morning, April 4”). Who cares if it was in the morning or evening. What matters most is that we remember the dreamer came in the name of love. Three different concept videos were made for the song, but U2’s live performance of the song in their Rattle and Hum bio-pic motion picture (seen above) using black and white cinematography is probably the most compelling.



Bruce Springsteen
‘We Shall Overcome”
(2006, 2010)

Although recorded in 2006 on the [Bob] Seeger Sessions LP, the Boss used the familiar song – once used on American soil in the war against civil injustice – to spread hope to a hurting, impoverished nation of Haiti after a 5.0 earthquake ravished the entire island killing hundreds and wounding thousands in 2010. Bruce Springsteen revived the song during a all-star telethon. Springsteen, in a mellow and intimate acoustic setting, turns the song into a sincere prayer of devotion.



Michael Jackson
“Man In the Mirror”

Michael Jackson knew the best way to combat the spirit of racism was to come up with some lyrical formation that would allow listeners to question themselves. With the help of Siedah Garrett, his strategy worked when he recorded “Man In the Mirror” on his 1988 Bad LP. He sings of the change beginning with ourselves (“If you wanna make the world a better place/Take a look at yourself and then make a change”) and, during the last minutes, summons the presence of an angelic gospel choir to take the song into the heavens.



Stevie Wonder
“Happy Birthday”

Stevie Wonder remained on the frontline in the campaign to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. With his social activist bootstraps on, he questioned those in the state of Arizona that were infuriated with the idea of recognizing Dr. King’s birthday (“You know it doesn’t make much sense/There oughta be a law against anyone who takes offense at a day in your celebration”). Thirty years since Wonder recorded “Happy Birthday” for his Hotter Than July LP, Arizona still hasn’t changed much. But on November 2, 1983, Wonder and the rest of the world were able to witness U.S. president Ronald Reagan signing a bill acknowledging the third Monday in January as a U.S. federal holiday. And today we sing: “Happy birthday to ya…happy birthday.”



URL Link: HIFI Playlist: MLK


10 Songs Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Billboard.com
MLK, Jr. Day of Service – MLKDay.gov

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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