Music for MLK Day

The third Monday of January is the only federal holiday designated as a day of service. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was signed into law in 1983 and first observed in 1986. You can read about the evolution of federal holidays in this Congressional Research Service report to Congress.

First page of facsimile score, Martin Luther King by composer Eubie Blake and lyricist Noble Sissle, 1968. Call number ML96.5.B625 no. 1 CASE.

But, what does this day have to do with music? There is a wealth of music composed in honor of Dr. King by eminent composers, including Luciano Berio, Michael Colgrass, Jeffrey Mumford, Elie Siegmeister, and Dana Wilson. Want to dig deeper? There’s a reference resource for that: A Catalog of Music Written in Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.! In the 2012 third edition of this programming resource, readers will find music for nearly any instrumentation to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. through music, from orchestra, to band, to solo instruments, to choir. The book also includes a discography and a helpful index of works about specific people.

Front cover of A Catalog of Music Written in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., 3rd edition, compiled and edited by Anthony McDonald. Call number ML128.B45 M33 2012.


In order for the resource to further assist programming music about peace, justice, and civil rights, 150 classical works listed are specifically in honor of or about King, with additional works about or dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks, Paul Robeson, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. This catalog lives on the reference shelves of the Performing Arts Reading Room, so you don’t even have to fill out a call slip to use it. Just get a Reader ID Card and come on in!

First page of the holograph score for Peaceful Warrior (Martin Luther King Suite) by Benny Carter, third movement, “Peaceful Warrior,” 1996. Call number ML30.27b.C37 no. 1 CASE fol.


One work I would like to highlight that is not listed in McDonald’s book is special to the Music Division because it was commissioned with the Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund: Peaceful Warrior (Martin Luther King Suite) by Benny Carter. This five-movement suite for vocalists with big band premiered at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, DC on June 8, 1996 by Benny Carter and the Benny Carter Orchestra. The Music Division holds a holograph score in pencil.

I hope you reflect upon the man and the musical ways to remember him this MLK Day.

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