by James M. Wall
Barack Obama’s election night victory speech included a stirring echo of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final sermon, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before he died.
King spoke on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters). This was King’s conclusion:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!(emphasis added).
Four months and 23 days after King died, the Democratic National Convention met in Chicago at an intense time during the Vietnam War, August 23-26. Rioting in Grant Park erupted between war protesters and Chicago police.
Forty years later, Barack Obama walked onto a stage in that same Grant Park. In a 17 minute speech, he told the world that the task ahead would be long and hard. He did so before a joyous and peaceful crowd estimated at 250,000 cheering supporters.
Chicago police reported no arrests during the long evening celebration. Midway through Obama’s speech, using the cadence of Dr. King, and with a phrase borrowed from that Memphis sermon, Obama said:
The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.
There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who wont agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government cant solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way its been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand. (emphasis added).
The Rev. Jesse Jackson was with Dr. King when he died in Memphis in 1968, and he was there to hear his final sermon at Mason Temple. Standing alone in the crowd that cheered Barack Obama in Grant Park, Jesse Jackson wept tears of joy.
These connections for a circle between King, Obama, Jackson, Memphis and Chicago’s Grant Park four decades in the life of a nation that has gone through wars, civil strife, 9/11, an economic crash, and now the election of the nation’s first African-American president.
Few people noticed at the time, but the music score played before and after Barack Obama victory speech added another significant connection to the circle of connections. The Los Angeles Times reported that while viewers worldwide may have wondered about the source of the music, the composer watching Obama from Los Angeles, did not.
Obama’s triumphant music was from “Remember the Titans,” the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced film from 2000 that stars Denzel Washington as a tough-minded coach of a newly integrated high school football team. The movie’s composer, Trevor Rabin, was at home, watching the speech with his wife when the music began to swell. “We almost didn’t get through the thing, because the phone started ringing and it didn’t stop,”.
Remember the Titans was made in 2000. It was based on the true story of the 1971 integration of T.C. Williams high school in Alexandria, Virginia. Denzel Washington plays the African American coach, Herman Boone, hired by the school district to coach the integrated team. He replaced a veteran white coach Bill Yoast (Will Sutton).
The real life Coach Boone spoke at Guillford College, North Carolina, in February, 2008, and related the film and his 1971 team to the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Director Boaz Yakin’s sound track draws from popular musical groups of the day, including Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend”. The film’s theme, “Titans Spirit”, composed by Trevor Rabin, appears in the opening and closing scenes, and at the end of a speech given by Coach Boone on the Gettysburg Civil War burial ground, where he connects that battle to the struggle of his Titan team.
“Titans Spirit” is a somber, but positive theme that arrives with Barack Obama at Chicago’s Grant Park eight years after it was scored for Remember the Titans.
The LA Times:
Hearing his music accompany Obama’s victory celebration was especially moving for Rabin, who was born in South Africa and whose family has a long involvement in the anti-apartheid movement.
His cousin, Donald Woods, was a newspaper editor who spoke out against apartheid and fled the country after the death of his friend, Steve Biko, who was immortalized in Peter Gabriel’s song, “Biko,” as well as in the film “Cry Freedom,” where Woods is played by Kevin Kline. Sydney Kentridge, another one of Rabin’s cousins, prosecuted the South African government on behalf of the Biko family.
“We were a very politically active family,” Rabin says. “My father was one of the first lawyers in South Africa to have a black partner, so I grew up very aware of the struggle going on. Coming from that background, it really gave me chills to have my music be a part of the election of the first black American president.”
So the circle grows, adding veteran African American film actor Denzel Washington and 54-year-old South Africa-born Trevor Rabin. Harry Chapin’s “All My Life’s a Circle”, anticipates this notion of life as a circle, with these lyrics:
All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown
The moon rolls through the night time
Till the day break comes around
All my life’s a circle, but I can’t tell you why
The seasons spinning round again
The years keep rolling by.It seems like I’ve been here before, I can’t remember when
But I got this funny feeling
That we’ll all be together again
There’s no straight lines that make up my life
And all my roads have bends
There’s no clear cut beginnings, and so far no dead ends.
From: “Rise Up Singing”, Peter Blood and Annie Patterson, 1992., by Harry Chapin
Photos used above are from, in order, The Chicago Tribune, American Rhetoric.com, Imbd.com, amd Huffington Post