By Dr. Alveda King
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, there will be memorials and community service days that will, even if for only a few hours, unify the nation. Under the brilliant glow of my uncle’s words and the memory of his actions, Americans will set aside our differences and work together.
Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy is universally celebrated. Few figures in modern history collectively bring people of divergent views together. I may be biased because he’s my “Uncle ML,” but you have to be a truly miserable person not to appreciate the good that his living gave to the world. His legendary “one blood” declaration of one human race modeled after Acts 17:26 still resonates.
When I think of the areas that influenced Uncle ML, I must consider the music that engulfed our lives and the family home on Auburn Avenue. The music was rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel music tradition of the Black church is the playlist of my life. It was the playlist of my uncle’s life. Gospel music derived from the hard struggle of the African-American community combined with the truth of scripture was a source of comfort and inspiration for my uncle; and remains the same for me today.
Our family has sacrificed many lives on the altar of justice for this nation. In 1974, my beautiful grandmother Alberta Williams King was assassinated as she sat at the church organ while playing, The Lord’s Prayer. That was the same year I published my first song, Let Freedom Ring.
As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, I want to look to the music that gave him courage in the darkest hours. Even on the day he was assassinated, the last request he made was to Ben Branch when he asked Branch to play Take My Hand, Precious Lord. His dear friend, songstress Mahalia Jackson’s recording of the song, remains a classic today. It’s quite possible that Branch already had that tune prepared to play that day because it was one of my uncle’s favorites.
Many people are not familiar with the history of the song. Today it is celebrated and heralded around the globe. But it was not immediately accepted by the Christian community because of its roots. Take My Hand Precious Lord was written by Thomas A. Dorsey, a musician who honed his craft performing blues and jazz. He rose to fame touring with Ma Rainey, who was not known for her wholesome concerts.
Like many extraordinary works of art, the song was conceived and born through tragedy. Dorsey wrote the song after he lost his wife to childbirth and their infant son within 24 hours.
The song speaks to the pain and anguish of a dark night that can only be conquered with God’s hand. My uncle had many such nights and days as he worked to save the soul of America.
Already 2023 has brought my share of pain and anguish to my door. Two of my sweet sisters in Christ, Civil Rights icon Cleo Orange and freedom fighter Diamond (of Diamond and Silk), have passed away. They will be missed. May God comfort and heal all of us who mourn. I find myself seeking comfort in prayers, scripture and favorite hymns.
In my book King Rules, I conclude with a chapter: If MLK Could Tweet. Today I honor Martin Luther King Day with an addendum If MLK Had a Playlist. Headlining this list is, of course, Precious Lord.
My upcoming album, Freedom Melodies, to be released for Black History Month on February 3, 2023, will highlight other favorites. It includes a fresh take on the 20th-century Civil Rights anthem, We Shall Overcome. In tribute to the Martin Luther King Dream, I covered The Impossible Dream. I am grateful that My Uncle M.L. taught us in God’s hands, the dream isn’t so impossible after all.
Dr. Alveda King: Alveda C. King, Ph.D., serves as Chair of the America First Policy Institute’s Center for the American Dream. She is the daughter of the late slain civil rights activist, Rev. A. D. King, the niece of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a Christian evangelist, a graduate of Aidan University. She is the founder of SPEAK FOR LIFE and ALVEDA KING MINISTRIES (www.alvedaking.com).