Musicians around the world have paid tribute to civil rights leader and human rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The tributes began immediately after his death by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, and have continued over the decades since then. Here are a few of the songs honoring Dr. King that have conveyed grief, remembrance, inspiration, and hope to millions of Americans, as well as to people around the world struggling to assert their rights amid bigotry and violence.
1. “Abraham, Martin and John”
“Abraham, Martin and John,” with words and music by rock musician Dick Holler, was written as a tribute to Dr. King and to presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated just shortly after King was gunned down. It was a tumultuous time, and communities nationwide—the black community in particular—were torn apart by anger and grief. Holler’s spare, repetitive chords, and gentle, evocative, and simple words—as originally recorded by singer Dion DiMucci—seemed just right for the moment.
The song references, in turn, President Abraham Lincoln, President John F. Kennedy, King, and Robert Kennedy, each of whom “freed a lot of people” but died violent, untimely deaths amid cataclysmic events that would change the course of history. The song’s four verses are identical except for the name of each man. Each one asks the listener if anyone has seen “my old friend Abraham,” “my old friend John,” and so on. The concluding words paint a picture of the four men walking side by side over a hill together.
The words and sentiments may be considered old-fashioned—even simplistic—to some listeners today. But for many who were alive at the time and looked up to King and the Kennedy brothers as the best of America, they can still summon tears and—often—a smile of wistfulness for the bright future that these men stood for that remains only partially realized.
2. “Happy Birthday”
“Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder is a song written for a didactic purpose, but one whose lyrics and music still bring joy to audiences who may not even be aware of their original meaning. Wonder, the blind superstar singer-songwriter whose poetic lyrics and musically complex and ingenious melodies embody the joys and struggles of the 1960s and ‘70s, has always been an activist.
So, he wrote “Happy Birthday” in 1981 as part of a campaign to get King’s birthday declared an official national holiday. At the time, there was vigorous opposition from conservative politicians and interest groups to a federal holiday honoring King. Wonder’s up-tempo beat and lyrics celebrate King and ask how anyone could oppose the national recognition of “a man who died for good.” Wonder’s lively refrain of “Happy Birthday to ya!” is still very danceable and much deserving of celebration.
In 1982, Wonder joined King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, in delivering a petition with 6 million signatures on it in support of the holiday directly to the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. The following year, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill declaring Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federal holiday to be observed every third Monday in January, beginning in 1986.
3. “Pride (In the Name of Love)”
“Pride (In the Name of Love)” by the Irish rock group U2 was released in 1984 as the lead single on the album “Unforgettable Fire.” The band’s lead singer, Bono, initially put together a set of lyrics intended to condemn the militaristic focus of the United States under President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
But after a 1983 visit to an exhibit honoring King’s legacy at Chicago’s Peace Museum, Bono began crafting the song to highlight King’s achievements, as well as those of other martyrs to the cause of peace throughout history. The finished lyrics echo King’s own phrases, such as “Free at last,” and “One man come in the name of love.”
The phrase “pride” in the title is used in two ways in the lyrics. One kind of “pride” that Bono refers to is the pride of aggression and violence. The second is the kind of pride moral heroes like King embodied, pride in being on the side of justice and freedom for all people.
4. “The King”
Pioneering New York hip hop composer and performer Grandmaster Flash, with his group the Furious Five, produced another moving tribute to King, with a song simply titled “The King,” which was featured on the 1988 album On the Strength. The song’s beats and rhythms alone serve as an example of Grandmaster Flash’s classic and fresh musicianship, even as its lyrics provide a lasting artistic memorial to King, a man who “brought hope to the hopeless.”
“His name is Martin Luther King,” and he dedicated his life to “making freedom ring,” the rap song proclaims. It relates how King, who was fearless in his convictions, was vilified and persecuted as a black man taking constructive action for freedom for all blacks, and it laments the fact that too many turned away from King’s message of peace and hope, during his lifetime and after.
5. “A Dream”
“A Dream,” which is rapper Common’s 2006 tribute to King, samples the words of the hero’s most famous speech. The music video for the song incorporates historical footage of King delivering the speech at the March on Washington in 1963.
Common weaves King’s original words and story (“I have a dream”) into his own perspective (“I got a dream”) as a 21st century black man “born on the blacklist” to struggle against enduring racism, but working to find the hope that still endures through the inspiration he draws from King’s words.
Common’s performance, featuring fellow American rapper will.i.am, elaborates on King’s words “one day” throughout its lyrics, and adds, of dreams, “I still have one.”