OPINION: Thank you, Billy Porter, I needed that

It’s now been more than three weeks since “John Lewis: Celebrating a Hero” aired on CBS and I still can’t shake Billy Porter’s stirring performance of “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

“Oh, when I go to my brother/ I’d say brother, help me, please/ But he winds up knockin’ me/ Back down on my knees.”

Sam Cooke penned those words in 1963, a time not that much different from today. Both Medgar Evers and President John F. Kennedy were murdered. And civil rights leaders held the March on Washington to protest racial discrimination and to show support for major civil rights legislation that was pending in Congress.

I was 7 years old that year, but for as long as I can remember, Cooke has provided for me one of the fondest memories of my father. Years would pass before I’d first hear and fully appreciate “a change,” but because of my dad, I knew Cooke as a gospel singer.

I don’t remember my father as a particularly religious man, but when I think of him — and I think of him a lot — it’s almost always in the context of Sam Cooke forever singing “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” a spiritual based on the biblical story in Matthew about a woman who’d spent everything she had in search of a cure for a blood disease until one day she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and was healed.

Cooke would go on to become the first big gospel star to turn to so-called “devil’s” music the year I was born.

As the story goes, he was inspired to write “A Change Is Gonna Come” only after hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which became a marquee song of the civil rights movement.

Although Dylan tried mightily to disassociate himself with activist music of the time, his music is inexorably connected to the civil rights movement, according to Marja Kerney, a music instructor at Western Michigan University.

Marja Kerney is a music instructor at Western Michigan University. Courtesy of Marja Kerney

Credit: Courtesy of Marja Kerney

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Credit: Courtesy of Marja Kerney

Dylan, she said, also disliked being a celebrity, so he dismissed being the voice of a generation.

“I’m of the mind that art isn’t owned by who creates it but by who needs it,” she said.

“Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist/ Before they’re allowed to be free?/ Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head/ And pretend that he just doesn’t see?/ The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind/ The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

Cooke apparently needed it, too, writing his one protest song, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” soon after he and his entourage were turned away from a Shreveport, Louisiana, hotel because they were Black.

“That was a real defining moment for him,” Kerney said.

Not surprisingly, there is an undeniable sadness to “A Change Is Gonna Come.” But that isn’t what you’re left with.

Unlike a lot of protest music, Cooke gave us hope, too.

I didn’t know it when I tuned into the John Lewis special weeks ago, but that’s what I needed.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

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Billy Porter, who has won awards for his work on TV and Broadway, captured that hope and sat it deep down in my spirit.

Kerney, who developed a class on protest music while at Stetson University and then taught it most recently at Kennesaw State University, told me she felt it, too.

Porter, she said, brought prominence to the song.

“The thing that struck me most was this song was written in 1963 and here we are decades later, and it’s still unfortunately appropriate for our time. And even more poignant, this performance features a gay Black man singing it,” Kerney said. “I think at times the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement have worked together as a larger force for good, and Billy Porter represented that connection in this performance.”

There were other uplifting moments in the Oprah Winfrey tribute to Rep. Lewis’ remarkable life, including equally stirring tributes from Brad Pitt and Tyler Perry, musical performances from Wynonna and Yolanda Adams, Jennifer Hudson and, of course, John Legend and Common singing “Glory,” their Oscar- and Grammy-winning song from the film “Selma.”

Lewis died at age 80 on July 17 after announcing in December that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and within hours of another civil rights icon, C.T. Vivian.

I’d barely come to terms with that loss when I learned the Rev. Herman Cain, a fellow church member, had also passed.

Death upon death upon death, piled onto more than 60 days of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Even in the midst of all the turmoil that seemed to mount with each passing day, I felt this song in my heart: “I feel you moving. Move, oh Lord, in me.”

There was always more bad news. More death. More sorrow to come.

And then there was Billy Porter, his face contorted, his body twisting, his voice lifting me to a place I had not been in a long while.

“There been times that I thought I wouldn’t last for long/ Now I think I’m able to carry on/ It’s been a long, a long time coming/ But I know a change’s gonna come, oh, yes, it will.”

Listening, I was hopeful again. I still am.

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