During the great March on Washington in 1963, as marchers for civil rights linked their arms and joined their voices together in song, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached that he dreamed of a day when the “jangling discords of our nation” would finally be transformed into “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” For King, this was more than a metaphor. Throughout his life he spoke about his belief that music had the power to transcend the differences between people and bring them together in the spirit of brotherhood.
When he was 10 years old, King listened live over the radio when Marian Anderson sang to a crowd of 75,000 gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial at a concert organized by Eleanor Roosevelt after the great contralto was denied the stage at Constitution Hall. Hearing this concert made a lasting impression on King, who wrote five years later at the age of fifteen about the power of her singing that day and the effect it had on those who were listening, “She sang as never before, with tears in her eyes. When the words of ‘America’ and ‘Nobody Knows de Trouble I Seen’ rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, Black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality, and fraternity.” This “new baptism of fraternity (brotherhood)” echoed in King’s soul, and Marian Anderson’s stage that day, at the feet of Abraham Lincoln, would become the same location from which King himself would deliver his speech about the “beautiful symphony of brotherhood” almost 25 years later — with Marian Anderson herself standing on the stage beside him when he did.
Music played a very significant role in the civil rights movement, as it did for Martin Luther King personally. As we honor his life and legacy, we hear his resounding baritone voice echoing across time, the lyrics of spirituals and freedom songs pervading his speeches, the musical cadences of his powerful oratory resonating with the power to awaken our hearts and stir our souls. Some of the story of Martin Luther King’s love of music is told in a wonderful program co-produced by WNYC and NPR, titled “A Beautiful Symphony of Brotherhood: A Musical Journey Into the Life of Martin Luther King Jr.”
Music played a central and formative role throughout King’s life, from the African-American spirituals and freedom songs, to classical symphonies and grand opera. His love of music began at home, and pervaded his life from the very moment he was born. King’s own mother, Alberta Williams King, was the organist and choir director at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for 25 years, throughout King’s childhood, while his father served as pastor. King grew up singing in his mother’s choir and learning to play piano with her as his teacher. He went on to join the Glee Club when he became a student at Morehouse College.
In addition to the hymns and spirituals of his childhood, opera would come to play a unique and central role in his life. Following Marian Anderson's historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, African-American opera singers began to break the color barrier and successfully secure leading roles on the stages of the great opera houses across the United States. In January 1955, Marian Anderson and Robert McFerrin made history, becoming the first African-American singers to perform on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a significant breakthrough in the struggle for civil rights. King was certainly conscious of this victory. As he wrote in his autobiography, he listened regularly to the live radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera on the car radio as he drove:
“On a cool Saturday afternoon, I set out to drive from Atlanta, Georgia, to Montgomery, Alabama. It was a clear wintry day. The Metropolitan Opera was on the radio with a performance of one of my favorite operas – Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. So with the beauty of the countryside, the inspiration of Donizetti’s inimitable music, and the splendor of the skies, the usual monotony that accompanies a relatively long drive – especially when one is alone was dispelled in pleasant diversions.”
And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Dr. King loved opera. In fact, he loved an opera singer! He met his future wife, Coretta Scott, when she was a voice student studying opera at the New England Conservatory in Boston, while King was there as a theology student at Boston University. On one of their first dates, King took Corretta to Symphony Hall in Boston, to hear the pianist Arthur Rubinstein perform.
Coretta Scott herself grew up with music in church, singing hymns and spirituals. When she got to seventh grade, her school music teacher introduced her to classical music and to recordings of the great African-American opera singers of the day — Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, Dorothy Maynor — and at that point, Coretta fell in love with classical music and decided she wanted to pursue singing as a career, following the path that Marian Anderson had blazed. In an interview, she said of this experience: "I always wanted to study music; that was my first love. In high school, I had a teacher who influenced me greatly, Miss Olive J. Williams, and she was versatile in music, and I wanted to be like her. She exposed me to the world of classical music. Before then, I had never heard classical music. She exposed me also to the great composers of the world, as well as black performers, which I didn't know about at the time: Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes and Dorothy Maynor and others. So I got my foundation and my beginning there... I always believed that there was a purpose for my life, and that I had to seek that purpose, and that if I discovered that purpose, then I believed that I would be successful in what I was doing. And I thought I had found that purpose when I decided that music was going to be my career — concert singing."
She attended Antioch College to study music and education, and while she was there she met Paul Robeson, who heard her sing and strongly encouraged her to continue with her singing career. (She recalled of that experience: "There was Paul Robeson, who was a great singer and had such a commanding presence. When I first met him and he performed, you could just feel so much power when he walked out on the stage, and his words were so meaningful — his very deep voice, both speaking and singing.") She was then awarded a scholarship to complete her vocal studies at the prestigious New England Conservatory in Boston, where she also studied the violin. It was here that she met her future husband.
Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King were married in June 1953, after which she finished her music degree, and then joined her husband in Montgomery, Alabama where he had just accepted a position as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. (It was while he was driving from Atlanta to Montgomery to interview for this job that he had tuned into the Metropolitan Opera’s radio production of his “favorite opera”, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lamermoor, as he described in his autobiography.)
Coretta began to present solo concerts and recitals in Montgomery, continuing her professional singing career. In posters advertising these concerts, she was hailed as the "national famous soprano" Coretta Scott King. Her singing career continued to blossom, even as their family continued to grow (she even ended up serving as voice instructor in the music department of Morris Brown College in Atlanta.)
But when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was launched, Martin Luther King was thrust into the center of what rapidly became a national movement for civil rights, and Coretta’s notion of her future singing career began to be transformed. As she stated in an interview, "I had a growing sense that I was involved in something so much greater than myself, something of profound historic importance. I came to the realization that we had been thrust into the forefront of a movement to liberate oppressed people, not only in Montgomery but also throughout our country, and this movement had worldwide implications. I felt blessed to have been called to be a part of such a noble and historic cause."
She began to use her music directly in support of the cause of civil rights, singing at a concert called "Salute to Montgomery" at the Manhattan Center (formerly the Manhattan Opera House) in New York City in 1956, alongside Harry Belafonte and Duke Ellington, in support of the Montgomery bus boycott. At this concert, she sang a selection of classical pieces and spirituals, including premiering a piece by Frances Smith Thomas, a civil rights activist and former high school teacher of Coretta, titled "My Feet Are Tired, But My Soul Is Resting" dedicated to those citizens of Montgomery who were involved in the bus boycotts.
This inspired her to launch a series of what she called “Freedom Concerts” all of over the country to raise money for the civil rights struggle. She debuted this concert series at the historic Town Hall Theater in New York City, interspersing narratives of the freedom struggle and the civil rights movement with spirituals, freedom songs, and classical art songs which she sang. She presented over thirty of these concerts over the span of several years in major cities across the country, using them to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the nonviolent civil rights organization of which her husband served as president. These concerts would become a significant source of funding for the daily operations of the SCLC.
Coretta Scott accompanied Martin Luther King on trips around the world, to various countries in Europe (including to Norway to receive the Nobel Prize), to Mexico, to the Middle East, to Africa (visiting Ghana in 1957 to mark that country's independence), and to India (at the invitation of Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru), where she would sing spirituals and art songs at events where her husband spoke. And she was active at civil rights demonstrations across the country, singing and speaking, and helping her husband lead marches, linking arms with him and joining her voice with his, as together they would lead the marchers in freedom songs.
You can hear the voice of Corretta Scott King as she sings the spiritual “There Is A Balm In Gilead” at the funeral for the four young girls killed in the September 15th, 1963 bombing of the the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The funeral took place just three weeks after the March on Washington. Martin Luther King delivered the eulogy for the young girls, which he ends by quoting Shakespeare: "May the flight of angels sing thee to thy eternal rest."
And on the night before the angels sang him to his own eternal rest, Martin Luther King delivered his last speech, the famous “Mountaintop Speech”, to a rally of members of the striking sanitation workers union in Memphis, Tennessee. Throughout the speech he recalled the power of song to sustain the marchers for civil rights and even change the hearts of those who attacked them, describing that in the face of brutal violence, "we'd just go on singing" and that even when the marchers had been thrown in jail, "we'd see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our words and our songs."
The speech was a tour de force of world history, stretching back to Moses and the struggle for freedom of the Hebrew people, to Plato and Socrates assembled around the Parthenon in Ancient Greece debating the “great and eternal issues of reality”, to the Renaissance and all that it did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man, to the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and then to the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s bold declaration that we have “nothing to fear but fear itself”. King places himself in that sweep of history, and then closes the speech by defiantly declaring “I’m not fearing any man” for he had “been to the mountaintop,” and finally concluding with the words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” The lyrics of this song would be the last public words he would ever speak.
King lived a life intimately entwined with music, and he believed deeply in its power to bind the wounds of hatred and bring mankind together in a spirit of fraternity and brotherhood. When King dreamed of the “jangling discords of our nation” resolving into that great “symphony of brotherhood”, this was no mere metaphor but a true belief in that universal power of love which music embodies. One can reasonably imagine that when he spoke these words, in his mind he heard the voice of the legendary bass-baritone and activist for civil rights Paul Robeson (who had been the one to encourage Coretta to attend New England Conservatory and pursue her opera career), singing the words of the poet Friedrich Schiller set to music by Ludwig van Beethoven in his own “symphony of brotherhood,” the Ninth Symphony.
In that symphony, in its final movement, the baritone soloist suddenly interrupts the discords of the previous instrumental motif and declares, “O friends, not these tones, but rather let us sing more beautiful ones, and ones more filled with joy!” After this, one man sings the hymn: “Thy power binds together what the ages have cast aside; All men shall become brothers where thy gentle wings abide,” which then the entire chorus takes it up, echoing him as if with the voice of all humanity — “Alle Menschen werden Brüder! All men shall become brothers!” — declaring at last the triumph of that "beautiful symphony of brotherhood."
Matthew Ogden CSM Studio Manager Bassoon, Oboe and Voice Instructor The Catoctin School of Music