Running into change: How music influences Civil Rights

Sam Cooke was watching the 1963 March on Washington when a young Bob Dylan began to sing “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” a song about the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the institutional oppression Dylan believed was responsible for weaving bigotry into the tapestry of American society.

Cooke, an already successful soul musician was “inspired by Dylan’s lyrics, just as he had been by Pete Seeger’s ‘If I Had a Hammer,’” according to the Library of Congress. The culmination of observing the brave Civil Rights Movement leaders of the time and the hostility Cooke faced daily as an African American living under Jim Crow laws in the South prompted him to write “A Change is Gonna Come,” a civil rights anthem that echoed the cry for equality that fell on dozens of deaf ears.

“I go to the movie / And I go downtown / And somebody keep telling me / ‘Don’t hang around’ It’s been a long / A long time coming, but I know / A change gon’ come.”

The proclamation of “A Change is Gonna Come” is one of anguish and distress yet hope for the reflection of the declaration that “All men are created equal” to be shown in the American legal system. Cooke’s plea would in part be answered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, racism cannot completely be cured by laws, as it is not exclusively a legal issue. Racism is a spiritual issue above all else.

This is why music played such a powerful role in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s unique ability to get through to people often surpasses that of laws, as music is inherently more emotional. Additionally, music is something that anyone can participate in to some extent, making it a useful tool to unify a diverse group of people. The role of musicians, like Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, in the fight for civil rights will never be fully understood, as the spiritual effect of music cannot be measured.

When Sam Cooke wrote, “I was born by the river / In a little tent / Oh, and just like the river, I’ve been running / Ever since,” he was not only telling his story, he was telling the story of the unheard and unwelcome members of society. He was running from a disheartening past to a future in which people like him could truly be free.

For all freedom-seekers like Sam Cooke, the future may be filled with successes that extend freedom’s reach, but true and lasting freedom will come through Christ alone. Only through him will one be finally free from the laws of man and the bigotry of many. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

Kilker is the opinion editor for the Liberty Champion

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