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Freedom music: how jazz and gospel provided a soundtrack for Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream

Martin Luther King Giving "Dream" Speech
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
Martin Luther King Jr., gives his "I Have a Dream" speech to a crowd before the Lincoln Memorial during the Freedom March in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963. The widely quoted speech became one of his most famous.

On the third Monday of each January, Americans honor Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader who championed civil rights and racial equality. Born on Jan. 15, 1929, he remains an inspiring figure to this day, his influence enduring long after his tragic death at 39.

Dr. King always acknowledged the importance of jazz and gospel music in developing an exchange of ideas between different cultures. Through the power of music, his legacy has resonated as we come together to celebrate his birth and commemorate his dedication toward improving our nation for generations yet to come.

Gospel was a musical birthright for Dr. King. His mother, Alberta King, was choir director at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and his wife, Coretta Scott, had a love of music that set the foundation for their relationship. The artistry of Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and others uplifted him with their heartfelt, soulful sounds. In time, his appreciation for jazz grew, too — as viewed through the lens of "triumphant music," it provided an added layer to Dr. King's pursuit of social change.

“God has wrought many things out of oppression,” he famously said in a speech to open the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. “He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create — and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations. Jazz speaks for life. The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.”

Dr. King was a firm believer in the power of music, which had been demonstrated the previous year at his March on Washington. That event brought together some of America’s most beloved performers, including Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, the Freedom Singers and most notably, Mahalia Jackson.

Jackson Sings At March On Washington
Bob Parent/Getty Images
Hulton Archive
American singer Mahalia Jackson (1911 - 1972) sings at the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, August 28, 1963. Sitting at lower right is Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) and his wife Coretta Scott King, between them is activist Whitney Young (1921 - 1971).

Embodying African American gospel music’s call-and-response structure, Jackson famously called out to Dr. King during his oration: “Tell them about the dream!” In that moment of raw inspiration, he transitioned from speaking broadly of inequality into presenting an iconic vision — “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This captivating declaration would forever be remembered in history as the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Among the many musical tributes to Dr. King is one that incorporates the full text of this iconic oration: “Soldiers (I Have a Dream),” from Christian McBride’s The Movement Revisited, which Mack Avenue Records has just issued on vinyl. The actor Wendell Pierce reads Dr. King’s words in this piece, against a backdrop of a marching snare drum and slowly building crescendo.

An assassin’s bullet silenced Dr. King on April 4, 1968. In the wake of his death, Stevie Wonder, then a teenager, also grieved. He channeled his emotion into activism and led a 15-year movement that helped make MLK Day a national holiday. His 1981 hit single, “Happy Birthday,” helped establish Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday in 1983.

Dr. King’s dream of a more just and equitable world is still one to strive toward today. Music brings us together as a society, unifying us in shared messages of love, resilience and justice. As we commemorate the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., let us continue to amplify his words by honoring his teachings — coming together and celebrating our shared humanity, recognizing the power of music to bridge differences and bring about positive social change.

Bobbi I. Booker is an award-winning Philadelphia-based, multi-media journalist and radio personality whose velvety voice has been a mainstay in the Delaware Valley for over two decades. In 1981, Bobbi launched her professional broadcast career with WRTI as a news reporter, and in 1999 was named co-host of Ovations.