This is the first of a three-part series about the music of Sam Cooke. I have the pleasure of writing about this legendary entertainer one day before what would have been his 81st birthday. What makes this day even more special is that it is the national holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and President Barack Obama’s second inauguration day. One of Cooke’s most notable compositions ties these three men together in a remarkable thread of history—A Change Is Gonna Come. Cooke wrote the song in 1963, a pivotal year in the Civil Rights Movement.
January 1 marked the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery for millions of African Americans. In April, Dr. King began demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, where non-violent protestors—men, women and children—were beaten by police officers, bitten by attack dogs and soaked by firemen wielding fire hoses. On June 11, weeks after the Birmingham campaign ended, President John F. Kennedy announced on national television his plan to propose a bill to Congress addressing civil rights issues including voting rights, public accommodations, school desegregation and nondiscrimination in federally supported programs. Hours following the announcement, Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers was the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi. He recruited members and organized voter registration drives and economic boycotts throughout the state. His widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, delivered the invocation at the presidential inauguration earlier today.
The March on Washington on August 28 drew more than 200,000 people to the nation’s capital for a political rally which culminated in Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Sadly, once again, tragedy would follow triumph. Nearly three weeks after the historic march, on September 15, a Birmingham church bombing claimed the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. The four girls were attending Sunday school at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the starting point for many of the protests launched by Dr. King. He performed their eulogies. As the nation grieved the girls’ deaths, an assassin’s bullet would soon end another life in Dallas, and America’s sadness would only intensify.
President Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza on November 22. His successor, former vice president Lyndon B. Johnson, would eventually sign into law the legislation he introduced which became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These events and a popular song written by Bob Dylan set the stage for Cooke to compose A Change Is Gonna Come.
Dylan wrote Blowin’ in the Wind performed by folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary and released in August of 1963. According to Daniel Wolff in You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke, the soul singer was impressed by Dylan’s ability to address civil rights issues in a song that was also a hit record. He was compelled to do the same and in December of that year, he did! It’s the lyrics that make Change one of the anthems of the civil rights era. Cooke wrote about being refused entry in public places, “I go to the movie and I go downtown, somebody keep telling me don’t hang around” and rejection from those who should help, perhaps the members of the clergy Dr. King addressed months earlier in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Then I go to my brother and I say ‘brother, help me please.’ But he winds up knockin’ me back down on my knees.” The song ends in a majestic climax, a testament to the strength of those who never gave up, “There were times that I thought I wouldn’t last for long. But now I think I’m able to carry on.”
Released in 1964, the song has been covered by several artists including Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Terence Trent D’Arby. Many will recall hearing it throughout Mr. Obama’s first presidential run. Others may remember hearing him use one of the lyrics during his 2008 victory speech in Chicago, “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment change has come to America.” Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi performed Change at the 2009 inaugural concert. I am certain that when Cooke wrote this song 50 years ago, he never envisioned a national holiday for Dr. King or the reelection of the country’s first African-American president whose inaugural event included an invocation by Medgar Evers’ widow.
A Change Has Come.
Thanks for reading this. Please join me in Sounding Off by sharing your favorite rendition of Cooke’s classic song. I look forward to your response.
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