Black History: A Change is Gonna Come

Civil Rights March in Washington

Griots Republic

It was February 7, 1964, when hit song Change Is Gonna Come was first performed by singer and songwriter Sam Cooke and quickly became one of the American civil right movement anthems. It’s easy to understand why, even before hearing the lyrics. The title says it all: change is what humans have been looking for since the beginning,

Sam Cooke Historic Marker in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, Flickr, Creative Commons

especially by those who have had their rights stepped on, and history teaches us that one of the most persecuted group of people has been African Americans.

The song was in fact composed in 1963 by Sam Cooke, born in Illinois, US, a key moment for the fight in the name of equal rights of black and white people. It was performed by Cooke only once on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, pushed by his manager Allen Klein who saw in the song an opportunity to move his client’s career forward. Cooke was actually skeptic about playing Change because it reminded him of the particularly frustrating occasion that brought him to compose it.

A few months before, Cooke has made a reservation for his wife and band at a motel in Louisiana but when they arrived there they were abruptly asked to leave since that was a “whites only” place. Cooke and his entourage, including his brother Charles, raised their voices protesting and demanding equal treatment and left. When they arrived in another motel, they found the police waiting for them, ready to arrest them for disturbing the peace. That was just one of the two reasons that led Cooke to write Change; the other inspiration came from Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind which made Cooke realize that he had never written anything about the African Americans frustration and call for rebellion, something he could easily relate to, besides the fact that such an important issue had been brought up by a white man.

As said, Cooke was able to perform the song only once, due to his sudden death on December 11, 1964, at the age of 33, when he was shot dead in front of a motel in Los Angeles. The reasons for his murder are still uncertain but one can easily recall the line of Change when the author says: “It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die / ‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky“. The song was released posthumously as a single in late 1964.

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