The Song Behind the Speech

Yesterday I saw the by now iconic video of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech which contains the line, “Free at last, free at last.” I’ve heard that a thousand times and remember it from when I was a kid. It made a powerful and immediate impact on our country.

But what’s often over looked is that Dr. King was referring to an old spiritual, sung by slaves years before. I got to thinking about that because the people showing that video had edited (censored?) Dr. King by cutting out the word “Negro.” King said “the old Negro spiritual,” but these people dropped out Negro since it’s no longer considered a proper way to refer to Black people.

Of course back in the 1960’s it was what you were supposed to say. I was taught to use that word till in the late 60’s the term Black superseded it. I have no argument with any group choosing the way they are referred too. I do however reject editing the past in a vain attempt to make it conform to our PC standards today.

So having been fired up I decided I’d actually look up what that old Negro Spiritual actually said. Here’s what I found:

from ” American Negro Songs ” by J. W. Work

Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last
Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last

Way down yonder in the graveyard walk
I thank God I’m free at last
Me and my Jesus going to meet and talk
I thank God I’m free at last

On my knees when the light pass’d by
I thank God I’m free at last
Tho’t my soul would rise and fly
I thank God I’m free at last

Some of these mornings, bright and fair
I thank God I’m free at last
Goin’ meet King Jesus in the air
I thank God I’m free at last

As you can see Dr. King expanded the meaning of the song, yet I believe stayed true to its essential meaning. Just wanted to shed some light on the source material he used in his most famous speech.

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The Song Behind the Speech