Selma Songs And More Music for MLK Today
You can thank Stevie Wonder for the move toward making today a federal holiday, and it all started with the song “Happy Birthday," from his album, Hotter Than July.
The idea to honor the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. with his own national observance was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968, but the collection of millions of citizen signatures from city to city was Wonder's doing (along with that of his tour mate, Gil Scott-Heron). Taking to the road for 41 days at the end of 1980 to promote his album and the idea of a national day in honor of King, Wonder originally had Bob Marley in mind to accompany him on the road but the singer had taken ill for the final time. In his place, Gil Scott-Heron filled the bill with his own repertoire of politically-charged, poetic songs, and a personal connection which he writes about it in great detail in his brilliant memoir, The Last Holiday. In a horrible twist of fate, at the concert's Oakland tour stop, the musicians, including their local guest Carlos Santana, learned John Lennon, had been fatally shot and Wonder had the unfortunate job of delivering the news to the the crowd that another man of peace had died by violence.
North Carolina's Jesse Helms was first to oppose the day; John McCain voted against it. Three years later, Congress passed the law signed by President Ronald Reagan declaring the day for MLK but it would take years, more activist effort, more songs, and more applied pressure for the idea to catch on and the day to become a reality (most notoriously, New Hampshire was last to party, finally observing in 1999).
While we are the subject of white male disregard for black lives, last week's slight of Selma by the largely white Academy Awards nominating committee was yet another demonstration of how hopelessly out of touch most arts and cultural organizations and institutions (Grammy, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) are with the realities of the people they are supposedly serving. In addition to being a gorgeously rendered and directed film by Ava DuVernay, beautifully acted by the entire cast of ensemble players and in particular David Oyelowo as Dr. King, the film's release couldn't be timelier given the ongoing nationwide protests against police violence in the present, in addition to the continued endangerment of the very voting rights that people died to have written into law by President Johnson in 1965.
Mercifully, the film was recognized in the category of Best Picture, which it is, and for its theme, Glory by John Legend and Common. Its score by jazz pianist Jason Moran is light-touched and in tune with the times. But the actual pieces of music of the Civil Rights Era were the film's musical highlights for me. Incidental appearances of songs by the Soul Stirrers, Staple Singers and the Impressions' anthem, "Keep on Pushing," swelled in all the right places, not too much to be obtrusive and usually just enough.
But if you want to hear the most moving piece of music of all, wait until the final credits roll: A medley of "This Little Light of Mine/Which Side Are You On?/Freedom Now Chant and Come By Here (Kumbaya)" sung by civil rights workers at the mass for one of their own, Jimmie Lee Jackson, is a revelation. Jackson's police shooting is what sparked the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the first place. The track is taken from a full album on Smithsonian Folkways titled Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama. Some of the other traditional gospel pieces on the recording like "Steal Away" and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," are led by the Rev. Hosea Williams (played in Selma by the always fabulous actor/activist, Wendall Pierce). But the marching songs are most vital: they are mobile, spirited, and ultimately free. These songs were built to travel the distance from slavery and incarceration to freedom, and that's why you can still hear them being sung today. In fact, right now, across the country there are King Day calls to action by young people organized to end police violence. And 50 years later, the song and the question remain the same: Which Side Are You On?
Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop.
UPDATE: A Little Politics
Reagan opposed the bill to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday but he signed it when it passed the House with a veto-proof margin, 338-90 on August 2, 1983. Not many of the opponents are still in Congress, but these are the last 4 survivors:
• Richard Shelby (D-AL)- switched parties and is now a RepublicanIn the Senate, the 7 racists who voted for Jesse Helm's amendment to prohibit the holiday are all dead or were long ago forced out of government.
• John McCain (R-AZ)
• Hal Rogers (R-KY)
• Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI)
UPDATE From Melody Siegler
Denise's wonderful post (above) reminded me of a YouTube that I found a while back, and one that I think is a profound statement of the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr.