The protest movement that has erupted during the past few weeks in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of former Minneapolis police offer Derek Chauvin is unlike anything America has seen since the Sixties. Sure, there have been numerous large-scale marches and political demonstrations since that time, but none of them have brought together nearly this many people. City centers all over America and countries as far away as New Zealand and Norway have been packed day after day with citizens demanding an end to racist police practices, and legislators are already crafting bills in response.
The pinnacle of the 1960s protest movement was Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, held at the National Mall on August 28th, 1963. It’s best remembered for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but there was a musical element to the day as well. Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Bob Dylan all sang protest songs from the podium in the lead-up to the main event. Here’s video of Bob Dylan playing “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” His set also included “When the Ship Comes In,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”
“I looked up from the podium and I thought to myself, ‘I’ve never seen such a large crowd,'” Dylan recalled of the performance in the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home. “I was up close when King was giving that speech. To this day, it still affects me in a profound way.”
Dylan was midway through recording The Times They Are-A Changin’ at the time of the protest, and the album came out on January 13th, 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson just seven months later. It was a landmark moment in American history that never would have happened if not for events like the March on Washington. Dylan, however, was losing interest in protest music by that point and didn’t take part in any demonstrations against the Vietnam War later in the decade despite desperate pleas from his former compatriots.
Joan Baez even called him out in her 1972 song “To Bobby,” begging him to write more songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “With God on Our Side.” “Do you hear the voices in the night, Bobby?” she sang. “They’re crying for you/See the children in the morning light, Bobby/They’re dying/No one could say it like you said it/We’d only try and just forget it.”
Dylan and Baez reunited just three years later for the Rolling Thunder Revue and both appeared at the White House in 2010 to honor the music of the Civil Rights movement where he delivered a stirring rendition of “The Times They Are-A Changin’.” Don’t expect to see him onstage at any of the ongoing protests, but he’s still clearly very proud of his work from back then.