“He cherished the great hymns of the church, particularly those that spoke to the ethic of service,” he said, “and to be involved in changing the quality of life of human beings.”
Music such as the movement's iconic theme song, “We Shall Overcome,” and others that King favored incorporate timeless values, Lewis said. “Those are not songs that have meaning confined to the 1950s and '60s,” he said.
King particularly enjoyed Jackson's rendition of “Amazing Grace,” Vivian said. After she sang the spiritual “How I Got Over” at the 1963 March on Washington, Baldwin said, King later wrote her to say she set the tone for his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Focus on words
His love for a range of music was reflected in his sermons, in which he sometimes recited lines or whole stanzas of sacred songs. In a 1957 sermon, he said the Easter message was reflected in such hymns as “All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name” and “In Christ There Is No East or West” as well as words from the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel's “Messiah.”
In that way, lyrics became more important than the musical notes that accompanied them, helping King deliver his message, said James Abbington, who teaches church music and worship at Emory University's Candler School of Theology.
“King was a trained theologian,” he said. “Music becomes the platter or the handmaiden for theology.”
Could King sing?
But in a life steeped in hymns, spirituals and other music of black culture, the question remains: Could King sing?
Friends and scholars say he often would sing with a group but seldom as a soloist.
In her autobiography, his widow recalled that he once ended up singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” as an unintentional solo and had to overcome “real stage fright” as he sang the whole song by himself.
“I never really told him he couldn't sing,” wrote his widow, a trained classical vocalist, in her 1969 book. “He had a good voice for a choir.”
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King, laughed off the question.
“I refuse to comment on the grounds it might make me sound nasty,” he said. “His gift was speaking more than singing, but he loved music.”