By: Zahary Draves
December 11th marks the 55th anniversary of the tragic and senseless murder soul singer, entrepreneur, and civil rights icon Sam Cooke.
Cooke was a revolutionary figure whose music transcended identity and culture and his iconic classic “A Change is Gonna Come” became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement.
He was able to be accessible to white audiences while still maintaining his loyal black audience and showing pride in his blackness without compromise.
In other words, he crossed over while staying true to himself.
He was also a man who wasn’t afraid to challenge the system as it pertained to the music industry, in essence, he was embracing the ethos of the movement within his own world.
He was one of the first artists to take on the business side of things and started his own publishing company and record label.
Much like his contemporary Ray Charles, Sam owned the publishing rights to his music.
For a black artist to achieve these feats at the height of the 1960’s was radical beyond belief.
The example Sam Cooke set to lead us to examine his special connection to three other black revolutionary figures who challenged traditional norms and institutions, advocated for the politics of black ownership and spoke of pride in their blackness before Stokely Carmichael coined it into a powerful slogan and the godfather James Brown expressed it lyrically.
Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Malcolm X.
Ali, who was known as Cassius Clay in 1964, was the young brash fighter from Louisville on the verge of becoming the heavyweight champion. He was also becoming actively involved in the Nation of Islam and exploring the politics of black nationalism.
Jim Brown was the best running back in football by far and led the Cleveland Browns to the NFL championship in 1964. He also was coming into his own as a black athlete with a strong voice and presence who was committed to black economic empowerment and ownership.
Minister Malcolm X, once a fiery spokesperson for the Nation of Islam advocating for racial separatism, became disillusioned with the Nation and was looking to find his place in the struggle on his own.
Put into context into which these four men came together at this particular time.
The murder of Medger Evers on June 12, 1963.
The March on Washington on August 28th, 1963.
The slaughter of 4 little girls at the 16th street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
All of these men shared a connection with one another based on mutual respect, shared goals, a commitment to their people, and of a need to form an effective network of athletes, artists, and activists.
For example, Ali and Sam recorded an album together and both appeared on television, including an iconic performance of “The Gang’s All Here”.
Ali had a friendship with Malcolm dated back to 1962 when he was first introduced to the Nation of Islam.
Ali even brought Sam up into the ring and acknowledged him after his defeat of Sonny Liston in February 1964 in Miami Beach to become the heavyweight champion.
What most people probably don’t know is that these four men gathered after Ali’s victory at the Hampton house motel near Liberty City.
Nobody knows what was said or what they were discussing, but what is known is that the next day, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali.
Imagine what that conversation could have been.
Four of the most powerful black men of their era, each dedicated to the cause of black America, each sharing a common vision and perspective, each possessing skills in communication and leadership that made them so captivating.
One can only determine what that was like.
Also, we can only dream of what could have been.
After all, Sam was murdered at the end of 1964 and Malcolm was murdered in February 1965.
Ali and Jim were carrying on the struggle and managed to stick together throughout the rest of the 1960’s.
The culminating point of their bond was the Ali Summit in Cleveland in 1967 when Jim gathered Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor), and a group of civil rights leaders to publicly show support for Ali when he refused induction into Army at the height of the Vietnam War.
The fact that this quartet was destroyed by forces beyond their reach could be interpreted as an extension of the COINTELPRO operation seeking to silence black organizations, leaders, and dissent.
When athletes and artists are being told to “stick to sports”, “just entertain us”, or “shut up and dribble”, it is another of saying keep quiet if you know what is good for you.
But in defiance of this narrow-mindedness, athletes and artists are going against the grain and carrying on the tradition that Ali, Sam, Jim, and Malcolm set.
From Colin Kaepernick to Kendrick Lamar. From Serena Williams to Beyonce.
The bond between athletes and artists is as organic as wall street oligarchs and politicians.
There is nothing more threatening to the old order than a sports figure and a creative genius forging an alliance rooted in political and social action.
That is why, in honor of Sam Cooke, in honor of fellow freedom fighters whom he aligned with, we can say that it will be a long time coming, but in end, A Change is Gonna Come.