Five landmark civil rights songs for MLK Day and the inauguration

When President Obama first took office, many highlighted the occasion as a fulfillment of many promises in music from the civil rights era. Songs from the ‘60s that promised change and lambasted inequality took a new air of poignancy with the first black president in office. As his second inauguration wraps up with Beyonce ravishing the national anthem Monday morning, and on the auspicious occasion of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, here are a few of the landmark songs from that era.

Sam Cooke -- “A Change is Gonna Come”

The most prophetic song from the era is also Cooke’s most beautiful vocal. You can hear the pain and frustration that comes from trying to create real change, but also the righteousness and conviction of the cause.


James Brown -- “Say It Loud (I’m Black and Proud)”

Easily the most danceable song from the civil rights era, the Godfather of Soul perfectly evoked the title’s radically self-confident sentiment with an irresistible funk arrangement.

Aretha Franklin -- “Think”

The civil rights era also saw the dawn of what would come to be contemporary feminism, and Aretha’s “Think” paired both missions in an incandescent single. Her performance at the 2009 inauguration only underlined the sense of a promise kept in this song.

Nina Simone -- “Mississippi Goddamn”

Simone’s rich and resonant voice could part the heavens, but it could also seethe with fury. This song, a response to the murder of Medgar Evers and an Alabama church burning, underscored the urgency and anger that also drove the movement’s activists.

Donny Hathaway -- “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”

Nina made this one famous, but we also love the smooth radiance of Hathaway’s version. A perfect example of the talent, skill and promise that the song encourages his younger peers to cultivate -- and for America at large to celebrate.


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