The crux of Regina King’s critically acclaimed new film “One Night in Miami” is the friendship between civil-rights activist Malcolm X and legendary crooner Sam Cooke, and that friendship is tested by a series of explosive – and fictional – verbal throwdowns. Adapted from a play that was loosely based on their real-life friendship (which probably wasn’t nearly as contentious as the screenplay makes it out to be), the movie casts Malcolm as Cooke’s pesky conscience, urging him to dedicate his musical career to loftier political and social goals and not just filling the world with silly love songs. Little did Movie Malcolm know that Movie Cooke was sitting on a future classic that would go on to become the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement and, in a way, practically define it.
An “Imagine” for Black people that came seven years before John Lennon dropped what might be his most-enduring post-Beatles classic, “A Change Is Gonna Come” is the song for which Cooke is now best remembered. It first appeared on his album “Ain’t That Good News,” which was released in February of 1964, 10 months before the 33-year-old Cooke was shot to death in an L.A. motel under still-mysterious circumstances. A stunning juxtaposition of the orchestral Great American Songbook instrumentation favored by Nat King Cole and the gritty R&B-gospel singing that Cooke peer Ray Charles introduced to the Black and white masses in the 1950s, the song represented something of a departure for Cooke, both lyrically and musically. It’s a 20th-century Black spiritual that distinguishes itself from the previous century’s “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (and even Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” which would come out the following year) by offering hope in life rather than after death.
Like Cooke, who struggled in his early days as a musician between honoring his religious calling and pursuing the commercial possibilities of secular music, “A Change Is Gonna Come” presented an intersection of the two paths. His gospel prayer hinges on the Christian faith that was forced upon Black slaves by their white masters and that, for many of them, provided the means to survive enslavement on a spiritual level. But unlike your everyday Black spiritual, “Change” casts some doubt on the promise of a great reward in the sweet by and by.
“It’s been too hard living
But I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there
Beyond the sky”
Those lyrics are perhaps the song’s most poignant and powerful, because they express the sense of urgency that Black people who may not have had their faith to fall back on must have felt at a time when Jim Crow laws rendered them lower than second- or third-class citizens. “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home,” their ancestors had sung while toiling sun-up to sun-down in the cotton fields. For them, a change was most likely to come with death.
“What if this is all there is?” Cooke’s song seemed to ask. Those four lines brought the moment-of-truth desperation of the civil rights struggle to the forefront. Blacks had to have hope for a better world while here on earth, for if not now, then when? Knowing that Cooke died tragically less than a year after the song’s initial release makes those lines all the more dramatic, heartbreaking and eerily prescient.
At the time of its release, Cooke was still best known for writing and singing smooth romantic ballads like “You Send Me” and “Cupid,” and light party tunes like “Twistin’ the Night Away” and “Having a Party,” but the social unrest of the early ‘60s and the drowning death of his 18-month-old son in 1963 changed him. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s landmark socio-political statement “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which debuted in 1963, and the rage he felt after being turned away from a whites-only hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana, Cooke wrote what would become his signature and most overtly political song.
It wasn’t a runaway chart hit when it was released as a posthumous single 11 days after Cooke’s death, but “A Change Is Gonna Come” went on to be one of the most enduring songs written by a Black artist in the last 60 years. It’s been sampled by numerous rappers and covered by everyone from Beyoncé to Greta Van Fleet. Barack Obama frequently played it at rallies during his first US presidential campaign in 2008, and he quoted some of its lyrics to an audience of supporters in Chicago after he won.
Last year, Jennifer Hudson delivered a stunning version during the Democratic National Convention, riding the song’s operatic swells with soulful precision and infusing it with painful resignation and proud determination, which, in her expert interpretation, didn’t clash or contradict. Although the tune has been covered countless times over the past six decades, Hudson nailed its mixed, conflicting emotions right up to the mic-drop conclusion, and made it sound like it was written specifically for her.
In some ways a musical companion to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech from the previous year, “A Change Is Gonna Come” is infused with defiance and courage. The lyrics express a similar longing and hopefulness, a dream that must have felt near-impossible during the darkest days of the early 1960s. For Black men to envision such a wonderful world must have seemed like the ultimate act of bravery at the time. Future anthems of Black faith like Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” Sounds of Blackness’ “Optimistic” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” might owe their very existence to “A Change Is Gonna Come” and the soul stirrer who dared to dream so big, finding courage in a seemingly hopeless place.
The change Cooke sang about would come sooner than he probably anticipated, in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed some four months after the song’s arrival. But how much did it really change? More than five decades later, we’re no longer banished to “separate but equal” facilities, but race remains the single most divisive factor in a country that has never fully recovered from the scourge of slavery and the horrors of the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow era.
As I watched American terrorists waving Confederate flags in the US Capitol building on January 6, Cooke’s message of hope and determination played on repeat in the back of my mind, serving as a sort of soul salve. Even if the world hasn’t changed enough to make being Black in America cease to be a liability, it helps that someone once had a dream that America could be a better place for us. Maybe someday it truly will be. In the meantime, we have hope… and a song.