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Five Songs for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Martin Luther King Jr.
William H. Alden, Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Back in the ’60s, and even into the early ’80s, songs about civil rights and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy were almost a rite of passage for singers and songwriters. And there are plenty of great ones out there from artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Public Enemy. We pay tribute to the civil-rights activist and leader — who was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and would have celebrated his 84th birthday on Jan. 15 — with five songs released since the mid ’80s.

U2 Unforgettable Fire


U2, ‘MLK’

From ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ (1984)



U2’s atmospheric fourth album ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ is all about the band uncovering American roots and connecting them to their own Irish heritage. It leads them to several places, including the civil-rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. The two-and-a-half-minute hymn ‘MLK’ closes the record and serves as its requiem.


Rage Against the Machine


Rage Against the Machine, ‘Wake Up’

From ‘Rage Against the Machine’ (1992)



Like King, Rage Against the Machine were no strangers to civil disobedience. This ferocious track off their debut album borrows its key closing line from one of King’s most famous speeches, ‘How Long, Not Long.’ “How long, not long, because what you reap is what you sow,” sings Zack de la Rocha in this song about racism in the United States.


Anti-Flag Mobilize


Anti-Flag, ‘911 for Peace’

From ‘Mobilize’ (2002)



These Pittsburgh punks kick off their fourth album with this timeless anthem about “fighting, killing, dying.” But the linchpin of ‘911 for Peace’ comes halfway through the song, when King’s most famous speech, 1963’s ‘I Have a Dream,’ shows up as a soundbite, driving home the song’s timeless message.


Ben Harper Welcome to the Cruel World


Ben Harper, ‘Like a King’

From ‘Welcome to the Cruel World’ (1994)



Harper’s debut album makes several references to the civil-rights struggle and King’s legacy (like the closing ‘I’ll Rise,’ which includes words by poet Maya Angelou), but the most pointed is ‘Like a King,’ which ties MLK to Rodney King, whose 1991 beating by Los Angeles police officers sparked racial unrest throughout the country.


U2 Pride in the Name of Love


U2, ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’

From ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ (1984)



U2 were all over King and his legacy on their fourth album (see ‘MLK,’ also on this list). But their breakthrough hit remains one of the best songs ever written about the civil-rights leader. It’s a stirring anthem that captures both the hope and frustration in leading a nation to change. After all these years, it still rings loud and clear.


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