CNN’s new series Soundtracks: Songs That Defined History kicks off tonight by examining the music behind the Civil Rights Movement following Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.
The series, executive produced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Dany Garcia, will explore the music behind key moments in history over eight hour-long episodes.
The journey begins with The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and looks at the key music which propelled the Civil Rights Movement following his death.
The episode features intense footage, and starts with activist Reverend Al Sharpton sharing his personal and powerful stories of how he learned of King’s assassination, and how the news was transmitted.
We then look at how black rage was captured in song by jazz great Nina Simone — including her soulful “Why”, a tribute to the civil rights leader.
Her songs revealed the frustration of the African American community.
A poignant couplet from her banned Mississippi Goddam: “Lord have mercy on this land of mine. We all gonna get it in due time. I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there…I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.”
Musician David Crosby and Peter Yarrow are also interviewed, as Yarrow does an acoustic version of civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome.
He talks about how lynchings were commonplace, as Dan Rather recollects crimes committed against African Americans. The news footage is difficult to watch.
The Freedom Singers are shown in concert and one of the members, Charles Neblett, seen in footage as a young man, is interviewed and talks about his experiences.
The message for equality was spread far and wide through music, and songs were the glue that held everything together.
The Civil Rights Movement became integrated, with whites from the rest of the country joining the fight for the south to give up segregation laws and end rampant crimes against African Americans.
Footage in the special shows a white southern mob throwing children through plate glass windows at a school.
Music was a huge part in the movement for change, and a platform for advocacy. At the forefront were figures like Joan Baez, who had become friends with King, and supported and joined the movement along with other key names.
The movement had little money or power to fight its cause, but through music and song the groundswell of people taking part and spreading its message swept the country.
Musician Peter Yarrow sums it up in the CNN special, saying: “People gave their all, they gave their lives.”
The walls of segregation started peeling away. But what was left in the aftermath?
The show is emotional to watch, as familiar songs from the past are placed in context against historical snapshots. The footage is powerful and reinforces how humanity can easily turn against itself and cause profound pain.
But it also shows that people are capable of reversing the tide, uplifting, healing and righting wrongs.
Arguments against racism made in song stretched from hymns like We Shall Overcome to James Brown’s assertive and poignant Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.
Soundtracks: Songs That Defined History interviews a wide swath of musicians, journalists, and civil rights leaders who each point out a particular moment in the movement.
Nelson George talks about the 70s being an “amazing period”. But it was also a time when white flight left cities decaying, and music from the period reflects the abject poverty and economic divide.
Stevie Wonder ushered in the decade, fighting hard for King’s legacy both in key songs and appearances in Washington D.C.
His famous song Happy Birthday was written to boost the cause of having Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday made into a national holiday. Al Sharpton says Wonder “sang that song into legislation”.
Smokey Robinson is interviewed, while news from the time is shown — from Tip O’Neill, the Massachusetts politician who lauded King and fought for his holiday, to Jesse Helms, who called him a criminal.
By the beginning of the 1980s white America had moved out of many inner cities, and the show examines the socially engineered problems and latent racism of the north.
This new landscape gave birth to a new sound, shown in the CNN special with classic Chuck D. and Public Enemy music.
Their songs spoke about deep-rooted anger and ongoing inequities. Their single Fight the Power was about a larger redemption, a readiness and preparation that was needed to effect even more change in a flawed society.
The episode ends with the music of Kendrick Lamar’s Alright and the tonal shift in the Black Lives Movement.
Funk icon George Clinton says: “Kids are meant to get on your nerves, and they will do it — they don’t want their grandmama’s sound!”
This episode is a powerful historical lesson set to the music of the past and present day. What will happen in the future remains to be seen.
But Al Sharpton delivers a poignant bumper, Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come — his mother’s favorite 45rpm record.
We see the moment when the Obamas came into the White House, made all the more powerful considering the leadership now.
People like Jesse Jackson, Oprah and other key leaders are in tears. That’s because they knew history, and about what had happened in the past to allow for Obama to be welcomed into power.
Future episodes of Soundtracks: Songs That Defined History will show the impact that music had on momentous events, from celebratory to seismic and riotous.
Other episodes cover the gay flashpoint riots of Stonewall, the first man who walked on the moon, when America and New York were attacked on 9/11, Kent State and the Vietnam War, Hurricane Katrina, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the famous tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs which lit the women’s movement.
Soundtracks: Songs That Defined History premieres tonight, Thursday, April 20, at 10pm ET on CNN.