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Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., On the Power of Music

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Berlin was chopped up like an ideological pie after World War II, divided down the middle into East and West — both physically and politically.

In 1961, East Germany began building the infamous wall that became the symbol of Cold War segregation. President John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963 was a clear message to the world upon which side of the wall the Americans stood.

Meanwhile back home, America was divided, too. We didn’t have physical walls, but there were walls nonetheless, and a young reverend named Martin Luther King Jr. pounded hard against them. The reverberations were heard throughout the world, and while Oslo prepared for King’s December 1964 visit to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, Berlin received the great man.

Opening West Berlin’s 14th annual cultural festival on Sept. 13, 1964, Dr. King drew a parallel between the two Berlins and the two Americas:

Here in Berlin, one cannot help being aware that you are the hub around which turns the wheel of history. For just as we are proving to be the testing ground of races living together in spite of their differences, you are testing the possibility of co-existence for the  two ideologies which now compete for world dominance. If ever there  were a people who should be constantly sensitive to their destiny, the people of Berlin, East and West, should be they.

Perhaps it was during this visit that MLK met the organizers of Berlin’s very first jazz festival, perhaps it was arranged earlier; regardless, the civil rights leader was invited to write a forward for the festival’s program. (Over the years the story has evolved into a speech by Dr. King on the event’s opening day, but in 2011 researchers properly identified this as an essay rather than a speech.)

These are the only public words from MLK on the topic of jazz, and they are quite potent. Beginning with the blues, the great orator lays out the power of music:

God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.

This is triumphant music.

King then moves on to jazz, the one truly American art form:

Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

Earlier that year, Miles Davis performed at Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall. Jason Parker notes in an essay for Jazz24 that “the event was a fundraiser for the registration of black voters in Louisiana and Mississippi. This was the height of the civil rights movement, and Davis was a vocal proponent and supporter of the cause. As such, he agreed to waive his usual (and by then considerable) fee for the performance.”

Listen to Miles fly during this solo and you’ll get a sense of what Dr. King was talking about:

Dr. King closes the address with the most stirring description of why music matters that you’ll ever read:

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.

And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.

When we think of music and civil rights, our minds often turn to those specific songs labeled “protest music.” From Pete Seeger to Billy Bragg to Public Enemy, popular music has long been the soundtrack of change.

But King pointed out that music itself is a protest. We sing (or listen) to protest our longing, sadness, and loneliness. So clap your hands and be happy. The good reverend would have wanted it that way.

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