top of page

Martin Luther King and the Symphony of Brotherhood

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.)