top of page

Songs to Honor the Dream—A Celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

"There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long / But now I think I'm able to carry on / It's been a long, a long time coming / but I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will."

The classic Sam Cooke song "A Change is Gonna Come" was released in February 1964, only six months after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Cooke was directly inspired by that speech in the writing of the song that became an anthem for the civil rights movement, and in 2021 was ranked #3 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Sam Cooke shared that the original inspiration for the song was not Dr. King's speech. Rather, it was a song by a young, white musician from Minnesota that made Cooke stop in his tracks. Bob Dylan released "Blowin' in the Wind" in May 1963 and was reminded of the power that music can have in culture.  At that time, many civil rights leaders, including Cooke, had never heard a song that so effectively addressed the issue of racism. It challenged Cooke to take his songwriting to a new level as he was reminded of how songs are the seeds of change that can be embedded in our hearts and sprout a garden of good trouble.

60 years have passed. While Dr. King's dream is far from being fulfilled, we can see that the change that Cooke, Dylan, King, and so many believed in has not evaded us. We celebrate the positive growth in our society, while at the same time acknowledging the bitter truth that there is still a long road of hard work ahead. One of the pictures we are given of New Creation is the gathering of "every nation, tribe, people, and language."  Our commitment to racial unity is not just Dr. King's dream, but the king’s dream, a mission we labor at until his “kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.”

If you are someone who labors at the work of justice, peace, and restoration, I applaud you for your intentionality. To inspire us in this good work, here are a half-dozen songs that mention Dr. King's dream or legacy. May these tunes be a companion to Galatians 6:9-10 (MSG) "So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time, we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith."

"MLK Song" by Mavis Staples

This was released in 2016 by (now) 84-year-old Grammy award winner Mavis Staples. Fun fact: She, like Sam Cooke, was deeply inspired by the Bob Dylan song "Blowin' in the Wind." She was floored by the fact that a white midwesterner could so masterfully capture the plight of most African Americans. Years later, Dylan made a marriage proposal to Mavis, and she declined.

"See The Day" by Liz Vice

This is a prayer of hope that maybe today is the day to see justice and love flood our world. I'm reminded of the work of redemption that God has already initiated. He is indeed making all things new.  This song was released in April 2020, and has been one of the finest in recent years that deals with the theme of justice and racial reconciliation.

"All My Heroes Are Underdogs" by Ross King

With some masterful storytelling, veteran artist Ross King eloquently weaves through inspiring figures David, Jesus, and MLK.  Not only does the song pay homage, but it also takes an introspective turn to ask if we might sometimes find ourselves as the villain of the story.  Yet, this 2021 song reminds us: "All my favorite stories make me deal with the ways I've been wrong."

"Glory" by Common & John Legend

This Acadamy Award-winning song was released in 2015, and I still get goosebumps every time I listen. One of my favorite lines is: "One Son died, His Spirit is revisiting us / True and living, living in us, resistance is us / That's why Rosa sat on the bus / That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up." Powerful imagery!

"Up To The Mountain" by Patty Griffin

Obviously, Patty Griffin is a living legend, with 11 studio albums and a career that spans nearly 30 years.  One of her best songs was inspired by Dr. King's final speech he gave in Memphis in 1968. In that speech, MLK said these haunting words: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land." The next day he was assassinated.

"Side By Side" by Wilder Adkins

This 2017 song by Birmingham-based Wilder Adkins shares the tension of living with Dr. King's dream presently, while looking for a day of redemption when "we will rise up singing truly we shall overcome." This song points us forward and gives us hope. And it is so deliciously folky that it would make Bob Dylan proud. 


Our weekly newsletter is the best way to learn about new books, staff recommendations, upcoming events, lectures, and more. Sign up here.

bottom of page