Charting aspects of Martin Luther King Jr.’s story in five gospel songs 

Keys to the kingdom

"No Restricted Signs (Up in Heaven)" - The Golden Gate Quartet (Columbia Records, 1945)

Gospel was the implicit sound of black protest, going back to before either the civil rights movement or gospel music existed in name. During the plantation era, African-American slaves communicated sensitive information to each other in codes. Hymns and spirituals were used by slaves to both vent against their brutal masters — as with any numbers of songs that deal with the subject of the pharaoh and his armies in the Old Testament, and Romans in the new one — as well as to pass along information. "Wade in the Water" might be sung the day before an escape attempt crossing a river that night, for example.

When modern gospel music first sprang up around 1920 in Chicago, thanks largely to Thomas A. Dorsey, the music reflected every aspect of black life — not just spiritual, but political and social too. One of the earliest and most explicitly anti-racist numbers arrived in 1945, "No Restricted Signs (Up in Heaven)" by the Golden Gate Quartet. I personally prefer the Capital City Quartet's later take on it, "No Jim Crow Up in Heaven," but the Golden Gates did it first. And it was incredibly brave for this popular quartet to tackle the issue of segregation as bluntly as they did in this song.

"Alabama Bus" - Brother Will Hairston (J-V-B, 1956)

One of Detroit's greatest contributions to both gospel and civil rights music history is one of the earliest songs recorded about King. It's also one of the only recordings made by legendary street performer Washboard Willie, who plays percussion on the shuffling dirge. "Alabama Bus" by Hairston, aka "the Hurricane of the Motor City," addresses the first major public protest that King was involved in, the Montgomery bus boycott, which got its start when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person at the start of December 1955.

The protest lasted a full year (until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional), during which time this song was recorded and released, for gospel entrepreneur Joe Von Battle's J-V-B label. As Battle's daughter, Marsha Cusic, wrote for the Metro Times in 2010, "'The Alabama Bus' is such a clear, anthemic narrative of the boycott that I always wondered, after I grew up, why it was so little-known. Brother Hairston was a Detroit preacher whose songs were startlingly socially conscious for the times. To me, it is a masterpiece of the civil rights movement and a memento of my father's bittersweet ties to the South.

"Move on Up a Little Higher, Pt. 1 & 2" - Mahalia Jackson (Apollo, 1947)

Jackson was not only the queen of gospel by the mid-1950s, she was one of King's earliest supporters. They were so close that, when he was depressed, King would ask his secretary to get her on the telephone to sing to him. Jackson's first smash hit was more than a song about the afterlife, it was a definite plea, only very mildly coded, for African-Americans to have more of a role in the social and political makeup of society.

"Move on Up a Little Higher" was written by the most politically attuned early gospel composer, the Rev. W. Herbert Brewster. Perhaps her shining moment was when she "opened" for King at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, with another Brewster composition, "My Soul Looks Back in Wonder How I Got Over." It's now common knowledge that it was Jackson herself who spurred King into the extemporaneous part of his speech, when she shouted at him to "tell them about the dream, Martin!"

"Freedom Highway" - Staple Singers (Epic, 1965)

"We met Dr. King in 1963 at Montgomery, Alabama," Mavis Staples told Chicago's PBS affiliate WTTW. "Pops called us all to his room that Sunday morning and said, 'I'm going down to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to see Dr. Martin Luther King.' At the end of the service, Dr. King spoke to Pops. He talked for a while. We got back to the hotel and Pops called us to his room again. He said, 'Listen you all, I really like this man's message. And I think if he can preach that, we can sing it.' And we said, 'OK, Daddy.' So we started writing protest songs." In April 1965, the Staples recorded their second album for Epic Records, Freedom Highway, live in a Chicago church.

"Our first protest song we wrote was 'Freedom's Highway.' That was for the march from Montgomery to Selma," Mavis explained. There were three voter registration marches from Selma to Montgomery; the most notorious being Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when approximately 600 nonviolent protesters were badly beaten. This song was recorded only one month later, in early April 1965, at New Nazareth Baptist Church. The group's sound was growing fuller, stronger, and more strident at this time, with Mavis' belting, gruff voice front and center. The Freedom Highway album has never been properly reissued, despite being among the greatest musical documents of the civil rights era, and despite the Staples themselves being allegedly King's favorite band.

"Together We Shall Overcome" - Magic Tones (Mah's, 1968)

The song quoted liberally here is "We Shall Overcome," itself adapted by a coterie of folk singers from C.A. Tindley's 1901 hymn "I'll Overcome Someday." It is the best known of what were called "freedom songs," which were often based on gospel songs and spirituals. This music of the protest movement was exposed to the nation largely through TV news coverage, as the movement spread in the early 1960s. This music greatly affected mainstream America. Across the country, white churches supportive of the civil rights movement incorporated gospel songs into their worship service for the first time. And at Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meetings, at marches, in the backs of cop cars, and in jails themselves, these songs were sung over and over again.

In Detroit, this gospel-tinged, Curtis Mayfield-ish, very sweet soul number had been recorded just one day before King's assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. It was rushed out on Mike Hank's just-resuscitated MAH label in just a few days and was an instant local hit. "Together We Shall Overcome"wasn't written to be an explicit tribute, but it wound up becoming just that. "We've been standing on the outside looking in/ Now the door is open, we're going on in/ Don't have to hold on any longer/ 'Cause our minds are getting stronger."

Speaking of Gospel Music, Martin Luther King Jr.

More by Mike McGonigal

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