12 Classic Songs Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.
The world is forever indebted to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who fought valiantly and peacefully in the name of equality.
Our nation honors the late civil leader every year with a national holiday scheduled around his Jan. 15 birthday. Given the importance of his work, much of which continues to ring true today, it’s no surprise that King has inspired music from a wide range of vaunted artists.
Queen, Paul Simon and Elvis Presley are some of the many acts to have written or performed tracks about King and his work. Never ones to shy away from social causes, U2 released two songs about the iconic activist on the same album. Prince penned his track reflecting on the continuing efforts to combat racism, while Stevie Wonder used music to champion the MLK Day holiday.
We’ve rounded up a selection of some of the most notable songs inspired by the late civil rights leader. In their own way, these tracks offer reverence, respect and appreciation for a man who battled for equality.
U2, “Pride (In the Name of Love)”
“Pride (In the Name of Love)” began life during a soundcheck. U2 were preparing to play a November 1983 show in Hawaii when the Edge began strumming through some chord changes. The idea continued evolving from there, with Bono originally penning lyrics criticizing President Ronald Reagan’s '80s-era military buildup. Unhappy with the results, Bono changed his subject to Martin Luther King Jr. The song was not entirely historically accurate – it famously says King was shot on "Early morning, April 4,” when the assassination actually happened around 6PM – but “Pride (In the Name of Love)” still resonated with listeners. It became U2’s first Top 40 hit in the U.S., helping 1984's The Unforgettable Fire reach triple-platinum sales.
This poetic elegy for King is gorgeous in its simplicity. Bono originally wrote the lyrics to the hum of a vacuum cleaner and, despite the band’s best efforts, U2 were never able to create a full instrumental backing that appropriately fit the piece. Instead, they created a solemn drone, allowing the vocals to cut cleanly through. “MLK” served as the poignant closer to The Unforgettable Fire.
Queen, “One Vision”
Following their triumphant performance at Live Aid, Queen returned to the studio in November 1985. Though the entire group collaborated in creating “One Vision,” its origins came from drummer Roger Taylor. “I had a page, a sort of poem, that was sort of half nicked off Martin Luther King’s famous speech,” Taylor recalled many years later in the Queen documentary Days of Our Lives. “It was all about one this and one that.”
Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What”
“Four men on the balcony / Overlooking the parking lot / Pointing at a figure in the distance / Dr. King has just been shot,” Paul Simon sings on the title track to his 2011 album. The LP’s overarching themes focused on mortality and faith, topics echoed in “So Beautiful or So What.” Throughout the tune, Simon eloquently declares that “life is what you make of it,” asserting that every human has the chance to do something great with their short time on Earth. In the song’s final verse, Simon uses King’s life and legacy as an example of one person who instigated a giant cultural movement.
Stevie Wonder, “Happy Birthday”
Stevie Wonder originally met King when he was a teenage pop star. He later became an ardent supporter of creating a national holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader, lending his celebrity to many King-related events. He mounted a "King Holiday" national concert tour in 1980, then drew more than 100,000 people a year later for a King holiday rally in Washington, D.C., organized by Wonder. A highlight of the event – held at the National Mall, the same location where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech – was Wonder’s rendition of “Happy Birthday,” the uplifting tune he penned advocating for the holiday. "I had a vision of the Martin Luther King birthday as a national holiday,” Wonder later told Rolling Stone. “I mean I saw that; I imagined it. I wrote about it, because I imagined it and I saw it and I believed it. So, I just kept that in my mind 'til it happened."
James Taylor, “Shed a Little Light”
James Taylor released his tribute to King in the form of “Shed a Little Light.” The 1991 track reflected much of the deceased civil leader’s ideology, including messages of racial harmony, spiritual strength and hope for the future. “To me, King is really one of the central heroes, just in our time – a real exceptional, rare person who contributed the right things at the right time,” he told NPR in 2005. Taylor credited his parents with instilling in him a sense of social consciousness: “They led me into an awareness of what was going on. They felt amazingly strongly about the civil-rights struggle, and I guess it stayed with me. It always stayed with me. So, it came out in a song.”
Dion / Marvin Gaye, “Abraham, Martin and John”
Written just months after King’s 1968 assassination, “Abraham, Martin and John” was penned in tribute to some of America’s most iconic civil leaders. The song’s title and lyrics reference Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Kennedy; the late attorney general and president candidate Robert Kennedy is also mentioned. Dion scored a 1968 Top 5 hit with the song, which was later be covered by Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles and Whitney Houston, among others. One of the best came from Marvin Gaye, whose 1970 update appeared on the album That’s the Way Love Is.
Elvis Presley, “If I Can Dream”
Rock’s King was a great admirer of Martin Luther King Jr., and was heartbroken when he was assassinated. Elvis Presley reportedly wept while watching MLK’s funeral on television in April 1968. Later that year, he recorded a soon-to-be-famous program for NBC, commonly referred to as his ‘68 Comeback Special. Presley was still reeling from the deaths of King and Robert Kennedy, along with the riots and unrest felt throughout America in the aftermath. Though organizers initially wanted him to close the special with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Presley insisted on something more socially aware. Songwriter Walter Earl Brown came up with “If I Can Dream,” a powerful number inspired by King’s famous speech. Though Col. Tom Parker dismissed the track, Presley insisted he perform “If I Can Dream” as the special’s closing number. The powerful rendition provided an exclamation point to the King’s triumphant return, and the studio version became a radio hit.
Kris Kristofferson / Johnny Cash / Bob Dylan, “They Killed Him”
A former Army captain turned singer-songwriter, Kris Kristofferson found himself drawn toward more activism in the ‘80s. Many of the songs on his 1986 LP Repossessed featured social and political overtones, including the poignant track “They Killed Him.” The song mentioned Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ and the “brothers Kennedy” by name, citing their efforts to make the world a better place, only to be murdered. Though Kristofferson penned the track, Johnny Cash was the first to record it, releasing his rendition of “They Killed Him” in 1984. Bob Dylan followed with his version in July 1986, just a few months before Kristofferson finally issued his own take.
Rage Against the Machine, “Wake Up”
MLK is one of several notable leaders mentioned in 1992's “Wake Up” from Rage Against the Machine. Known for its politically charged lyrics and bombastic rock sound, the band called out the government’s FBI investigation into King, with lyrics like “Departments of police, the judges, the feds / Networks at work, keepin' people calm / You know they went after King / When he spoke out on Vietnam / He turned the power to the have-nots / And then came the shot.” At one point in the track, singer Zach de la Rocha recites an actual FBI memo from J. Edgar Hoover discussing how to suppress the civil rights movement. The song’s final line also paraphrases a part of King’s speech following the Selma-to-Montgomery march.
Prince, "We March"
Though he was known more for singing about carnal indulgence than society’s ills, Prince was never afraid to speak out on causes he believed in. For the song “We March,” he channeled the spirit of King, questioning how far racial equality in America had actually come in the years since his assassination. Prince’s tune, which was released on 1995’s The Gold Experience, became an anthem for the Million Man March, which took place in Washington, D.C., later that year.
Neil Diamond, “Dry Your Eyes”
In 1976, Neil Diamond enlisted the Band’s Robbie Robertson to produce his album Beautiful Noise. Among the LP’s standout tracks was “Dry Your Eyes,” a song Robertson later explained was inspired by "how many people felt after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr." Diamond later sang the song at the Band's famous farewell concert in San Francisco, as chronicled in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. That was the only performance of the song for decades, before Diamond finally added it to his set list in 2017.