“God has wrought many things out of oppression. 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,” King said. “This is triumphant music.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gestures during his "I Have a Dream" speech as he addresses thousands of civil rights supporters gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963. Gospel great Mahalia Jackson, who influenced King and sang at the march, is to King’s lower left with the dark outfit.
He embraced Nina Simone in 1965 after she sang her “showtune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet,” the defiant “Mississippi Goddam,” on the highway between Selma and Montgomery on a makeshift stage supported by empty coffins.
Simone crossed out "Tennessee," and sang "Selma made me lose my rest," to the tight crowd. When she met King after her performance, she told him, "I'm not nonviolent!"
King gently replied, “Not to worry, sister.”
On April 7, 1968, just three days after King was assassinated, Simone walked on stage at the Westbury Music Festival and wailed the lamenting dirge, that her band barely had time to learn, “Why? (The King of Love is Dead).”
“Turn the other cheek he'd plead/
Love thy neighbor was his creed/
Pain humiliation death, he did not dread/
With his Bible at his side/
From his foes he did not hide/
It's hard to think that this great man is dead.”
John Coltrane wrote songs for him. So did Paul McCartney and James Brown. Aretha Franklin sang at his funeral.
In the 1980s, the Irish band U2 stunned the world with “(Pride) In the Name of Love,” and in the 1990s Public Enemy punched the world in the face with “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” whose video parallels King’s assassination with the assassination of the Arizona governor, who refused to acknowledge the King Holiday.
“I'm singin' 'bout a KING/
They don't like it when I decide to mic it/
Wait, I'm waitin' for the date/
For the man, who demands respect/
Cause he was great, C’mon/
I'm on the one mission to get a politician to honor/
Or he's a goner by the time I get to Arizona”
Speaking of the King Holiday, on Jan. 13, 1986, King’s youngest son Dexter Scott King spearheaded a project called “King Holiday,” a hip-hop/R&B song with a line-up of popular artists that was released in anticipation of the first official observance of the holiday.
But perhaps no song speaks to King more than Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday.”
Wonder was one of the main advocates pushing for a King Holiday when he released “Happy Birthday,” in 1981 as part of the campaign to have King’s birthday become a national holiday.
Stevie Wonder performs during The Dream Concert at Radio City Music Hall Tuesday in New York. An all-star cast of performers turned out for the event aimed a raising more money for a memorial in Washington, D.C., to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
On Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan approved the creation of the holiday and the first official Martin Luther King Jr. Day was held on Jan. 20, 1986.
Although the song by Wonder never charted on the HOT 100, it remains a powerful piece of art, for another reason: His version of “Happy Birthday,” has become the de-facto African American happy birthday song.