Tragedy and Art: The Power of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’

Fifty-one years ago, September 15, 1963, a coward murdered four little girls in an African-American church in Birmingham. It was an act of terrorism, an attempt to stem the rising tide of the civil rights movement. America — black and white — reacted in horror, anger, revulsion, determination.

For President Lyndon Johnson and a handful of determined congressmen, the bombing, along with the March on Washington, the Mississippi Freedom Summer and the events in Selma, collectively acted as a catalyst in the creation and implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The horrific events at the 16th Street Baptist Church provoked a response from pop music superstar Sam Cooke, as well. Cooke was at the height of his not inconsiderable powers, a gospel music-trained singer/songwriter with an expanding following and an even greater ambition.

As a young black man in an industry dominated by old white men, Cooke had been so busy building his career that he had not been particularly active in the civil rights movement, certainly not in the manner of artists like Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Dorothy Love Coates, or Gladys McFadden of the Loving Sisters. He cancelled dates in the South when he learned that they were segregated and he donated money to movement causes and songs to tribute and fundraising LPs, but he was not outspoken or a regular on the nightly newscasts.
Nevertheless, the March on Washington and the bombing had triggered something. In Peter Guralnick’s towering biography, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, he writes that Cooke composed “A Change is Gonna Come” in the days that followed.

 

On the surface, “A Change is Gonna Come” doesn’t sound particularly challenging, especially in light of the defiant freedom songs that rocked the movement in 1964, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” or “I Got My Mind Stayed on Freedom.” The song was finally released as a single in late December of that year, shortly after Cooke’s untimely death. It quickly became one of the anthems of the movement and music historian Dave Marsh said that “A Change is Gonna Come” “ranks with Martin Luther King’s best speeches as a verbal encapsulation of the changes black perspective underwent in the Sixties.”

Despite surface appearances, African-American teenagers and movement activists knew exactly what it meant. The lyrics speak of a universally understood sense of alienation in their own land, of being treated as second-class citizens, of asking for help — and not receiving it, even from their own people. And like the great protest spirituals, even when recounting the grossest injustices, the singer continually returns to the hope, the expectation of justice: “Oh, there been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long/But now I think I’m able to carry on/It’s been a long, a long time coming/But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.”

Some of the power comes from Cooke’s understated delivery of the song. It is not sung in anger, there is no stridency about the tone. Instead, there is a quiet determination, tempered with weariness and pain, but with an underlying sense of determination. Another impetus to the song had been the humiliation Cooke had experienced at the hands of racist police officers in Shreveport just prior to the song’s composition. Sometimes a quiet, cold fury can be more effective than boastful threats. Not that many white teenagers or DJs caught all of that at the time. It was just another great song.

“A Change is Gonna Come” is not the only popular song to cross over into the repertoire and consciousness of the civil rights movement. Ray Charles had several of his hits rewritten by demonstrators at police barricades and in dank southern jails. Curtis Mayfield was revered by activists for “Keep On Pushing” and “People Get Ready.” Later, the Young Rascals would release “People Got to Be Free” and refuse to perform unless there was an African-American artist or band on the bill.

Cooke didn’t live to hear or see the impact of “A Change is Gonna Come.” Nor did he live to see the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. or Robert Kennedy. The song lives on, with dozens of cover versions and, more importantly, a crucial place in the soundtrack of the civil rights movement. Rolling Stone magazine’s writers voted it the twelfth best, or most important, rock ‘n’ roll song of all time. The National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress selected it for inclusion in 2007.

But to me, the most poignant testament of the song’s enduring power can be found in the biography of Rosa Parks, the woman whose courageous stand against segregation was a signature moment for the Montgomery bus boycott — and the entire civil rights movement that followed. On hearing of King’s death, she retreated to her home where she held her mother and the two cried and hugged and rocked together over her loss, the nation’s loss. In the midst of their tears, they pulled out Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and played it over and over again. Biographer Doug Brinkley wrote that Parks said that Cooke’s voice “soothed” her and the words were “like medicine to the soul. It was as if Dr. King was speaking directly to me.”

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will

Half a century later, it speaks to us still.