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Comparing John Coltrane's "Alabama" and MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech

We hear snippets of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” all the time. Politicians subvert it for their own purposes; advertisers use it to sell stupid products.  But the “I Have a Dream” speech is actually brilliant and still motivational to people today. But is it as effective as a piece of music in influencing Civil Rights? Jazz musician John Coltrane wrote the moving and emotion-filled song Alabama in response to the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Let’s take a look at these two works, both of which influenced the Civil Rights movement significantly:

People are called to action for a cause if they are emotionally motivated by a cause. This can occur either through feeling inspired by something or through a mental understanding which causes an emotional connection. Martin Luther King makes his readers emotionally connect through his use of biblical metaphors to which they mentally understand to call people to support Civil Rights for black people. Music, rather than words, can inspire people to action because they emotionally connect with it right away, rather than having to understand before forming an emotional bond, as one must do with words. Although it is easier to call people to action with music, such as Coltrane’s Alabama rather than through words because while music provokes feelings in a listener, with words the listener has to mentally understand in order to emotionally connect, Martin Luther King Junior, through his use of metaphors similar to those in The Bible in his I Have a Dream speech, illustrates his wish for equal legal rights for blacks as a moral issue and therefore calls his listeners to action.

MLK uses metaphors with intentional or unintentional religious references to call his listeners to action for Civil Rights because the religious connotation is something which made them feel morally obligated, and therefore mentally and emotionally connected, to support and promote this movement.  MLK uses metaphors which are similar to those used in religious services, such as “not satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” which evokes thoughts of communion and drinking from a wine glass, as well as references similar to the Bible, such as “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” which evokes thoughts of parting the Red Sea in which the waters are parted for freedom and justice. These references which stir religious feeling and make his listeners connect the Civil Rights movement as a moral issue which makes them feel morally driven as moral humans to support it and do something to change things. Because they mentally understand the Civil Rights movement as moral, they become emotionally connected to it.

MLK called people to action with his words, but it is easier to call people to action with music, such as Coltrane did with his piece Alabama, rather than words because music stirs emotion in a listener, but a listener of words has to understand and agree with those words in order to feel the emotion. For example, through the dark timbre of the saxophone and the mournful way the saxophonist plays it in Alabama, an emotion is evoked in the listener. A similar connection in MLK would have to be a direct reference to something bad which happened-“we cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote”-- to which the listener could understand and emotionally connect rather than emotionally connecting right away. There is a more direct connection in music between a listener’s emotions and his feeling of a call to action than there are in words.

Listen to Alabama here:

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