In America 50 years ago, things were crazy. The surface calm of the 1950s was wearing thin, and the turmoil that would define the 1960s was beginning to bubble to the surface. It was the year that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated; the Beatles and Bob Dylan launched their permanent spots in the hearts and minds of an entire generation; the Women's Movement was reborn with the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.
And in the American South, the world began paying close attention to the struggles of millions of African Americans as they sought to overturn the slavery culture that literally outlawed the notion that all men (and women) are created equal, and share the same rights and privileges in this country. In 1963, a great many people, not just southerners, considered this a radical notion. Racism was entrenched, assumed, and even embraced.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most famous face from the Civil Rights struggles, made his "I Have A Dream" speech from the steps of the Washington Monument in 1963. Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was killed in front of his wife and children at his Mississippi home (his assassin was convicted in 1993). George Wallace was elected governor of Alabama on a "Segregation Now!" platform, and would stand at the doorway of the University of Alabama to protest federal troops escorting two African American enrollees to the school. Thousands of people, many of them children, were subjected to police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses by Bull Connor, an Alabama "safety" official, as they peacefully protested for their rights.
These were the events that found the glare of a national spotlight, but there were daily humiliations and smaller acts of physical and emotional violence.
And that year, singer Sam Cooke, whose career was soaring with hits like "Twisting the Night Away" and "You Send Me," decided to risk it all with a song called "A Change Is Gonna Come." It was a wail into the night of a soul in great pain, who was allowing itself to stir with the possibility that this human madness could come to an end. Cooke had one of the most remarkable voices of any singer ever recorded; he got his start in the gospel realm, broke into pop and quickly became the reigning king of soul singers, crossing over into a mainstream (read: white) audience. Recording this tune put all that at risk. Americans in 1963 didn't want controversy in their entertainment. Not quite yet.
The tune didn't make it to the top of the charts, but it eventually found its way into the hearts of those close to the Civil Rights struggle. It became an anthem of that movement. And it remains one of the most haunting, beautiful songs ever recorded.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King. Here's to the legacy of the millions of people who struggled, and continue to struggle, for people to stand in the sunlight of equality.