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Honoring MLK: John Kessler highlights music of the civil rights movement

Music was an essential part of the civil rights movement. This weekend, KNKX’s John Kessler will host a special hourlong program highlighting the most important songs of the era, as well as the milestones they marked.

The 1950s through the 1970s was a time when African-Americans were seeking the legal rights that other Americans already had. Through countless marches, speeches and rallies, African-Americans created one of the greatest social justice movements in American history.

Honoring MLK
John Kessler highlights music of the civil rights movement
Professor Clayborne Carson says he sees some similarities in the movements for a holiday celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the one commemorating Juneteenth.

Starting in 1955, acts of non-violent protest and civil disobedience led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that ensured voting rights. Martin Luther King Jr. himself said, “The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital part in our struggle.”

Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964.
Credit The Associated Press
Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964.

During our special program — Jan. 19 and 20 at 7 p.m. — listeners will hear artists such as Odetta, a folk singer considered the voice of the movement, and The Freedom Singers, a group of young activists who fused black church singing with protest songs and performed at the March on Washington.

Other featured artists will include Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, The Staple Singers, and Stevie Wonder. Listeners also will hear a 1965 sermon from King, followed by Mahalia Jackson singing “We Shall Overcome.” 

Be sure to visit following the show, to relive all the music celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. and the the civil rights movement. 

John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KNKX since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KNKX “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.
Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.