Sweet-voiced Sam Cooke was one of the nation’s most successful black “crossover” artists, singing uplifting ballads like “Wonderful World.” But when he was denied a motel room in Jim Crow-era Shreveport, La., he had no other outlet for his frustration than to write a song. The result, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” was recorded 50 years ago last week. Somehow, Cooke sensed that the impregnable wall of segregation was about to crumble, and captured the sentiments of black Americans who were both weary and hopeful: “It’s been a long time coming. . .”
A few months later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, barring discrimination in motels, among other accommodations. But Cooke’s lyrics came to fuller fruition 44 years later, when Barack Obama claimed victory in the 2008 presidential election by declaring, “It’s been a long time coming, but. . . change has come to America.”
Sadly, Cooke didn’t live to see many changes. He died in a controversial shooting that December. “A Change Is Gonna Come” was his great valedictory statement, produced at great risk to his career. The song — with its searing combination of faith and yearning — endures as perhaps the greatest civil rights anthem. And it stands as proof that change doesn’t come only through Congress, but through countless acts of individual courage.