At 87, the Rev. C.T. Vivian can still recall the moment, decades after the height of the civil rights movement.
As Vivian stood to conclude a meeting in his Atlanta home, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. joined his activist colleagues in song, his eyes closed, rocking back and forth on his heels.
“There is a balm in Gilead,” they sang, “to make the wounded whole.”
As the nation prepares to pause Monday to mark King's birthday, those who knew him say hymns, spirituals and other religious songs helped carry him through troubled times.
The spiritual fit King's unique circumstances, said Vivian, who recently was named vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization co-founded by King.
“The average Christian doesn't have to pick up his phone when it rings and think about somebody killing him or his children,” Vivian said. “The average Christian didn't have any of that.”
Although King had other favorites, his widow, Coretta Scott King, wrote in her autobiography that it was “Balm in Gilead” that “my husband quoted when he needed a lift.”
The first stanza she cited in “My Life With Martin Luther King Jr.” reads:
Sometimes I feel discouraged
And think my work's in vain
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.
King also was comforted by “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” a hymn sung by Mahalia Jackson at his 1968 funeral and by Aretha Franklin at the dedication of the new King memorial in Washington last year. “Through the storm, through the night,” it goes, “lead me on to the light.”
Accounts of King's life say it was the last song he requested, moments before he was shot on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn.
Lewis Baldwin, a religious studies professor at Vanderbilt University who has written on King's cultural roots and prayer life, said the song addressed some of the helplessness the Baptist minister must have felt as he constantly faced threats and attacks.
“I think that song spoke of that,” Baldwin said. “Give me courage, give me perseverance.”
Beyond music that encouraged him, Baldwin said King particularly appreciated songs such as “If I Can Help Somebody” that moved people toward the goal of creating King's “beloved community.”