Playlist: Songs of Protest, Power, and Strength

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Graphics by Nicole Bae

by Phillip Jones, Afternoon Host

Martin Luther King Jr. worked and preached at a moment in time when the call for Civil Rights was just beginning to resonate on radio stations and in record stores around the country. Here's a few listener requests for songs inspired by the unending struggle for justice, both from Dr. King's time, and the 21st century. We at WERS hope they give you some context and clarity today and always.


People Get Ready - The Impressions - 1965


A song of and for the Civil Rights Movement, Curtis Mayfield sang this iconic song for the first time in 1965. It owes a lyrical debt to spirituals like Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot but unlike that older tune, doesn't suggest a journey to an afterlife. Instead, the train and the journey are emphasized. The train's destination isn't specified, because Mayfield knew what King knew; that the journey towards justice is long, and may never end. All the same, you'd best get on board.


Respect - Aretha Franklin - 1967


A brilliant cover song that almost totally eclipses the original. Otis Redding penned Respect as an appeal to a lover; Artetha made it a demand, a manifesto of what she was owed as a woman. Franklin's version differs from the original in the explicit spelling out of R-E-S-P-E-C-T, making very clear that her demands are straightforward, and non-negotiable. 


Ninety Nine and a Half - Mavis Staples and Ry Cooder - 2007


Wilson Pickett recorded Ninety Nine and a Half in 1966, drawing on traditional lyrics. Mavis Staples recorded it in 2007. Her take is both a reminder of the unfinished work of the Civil Rights Movement, and a more specific indictment of the lack of response to Hurricane Katrina that destroyed thousands of Black homes and lives in Louisiana. Staples is never sentimental, even now in her 80's, because she is always looking forward, and pushing toward 100. Nothing less will do.


Mercy Mercy Me - Marvin Gaye - 1971


Not unlike the previous song, Mercy Mercy Me points to the connection between protecting the planet and Civil Rights. If there's no planet to live on, what will all the work have been for? It's a tragic song, and a cry for forgiveness, and a reminder to enjoy the beauty of Earth and the people on it.


Tracy Chapman - If Not Now… - 1988


The title says it all. Lyrically, Tracy Chapman let us draw our own conclusions from her reserved and beautiful lyrics. The one line that's not up for interpretation: 'A love declared for days to come… Is as good as none'.

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