Elvis Presley Once Performed a Touching Tribute to a Legendary Activist at His ‘1968 Comeback Special’

by Madison Miller
Photo by: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

When Elvis Presley decided to make his epic return to the music world, full of screaming fans and No. 1 hits, he decided to start off big.

The “That’s All Right” singer put on his famous “1968 Comeback Special” concert. Here he performed legendary songs like “If I Can Dream,” “Baby, What You Want Me To Do,” and “Trying to Get to You.”

The ’68 special was all a part of a large scheme to get Elvis Presley back into music. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958 where he served until 1960. Then upon his return, he launched a career in Hollywood, starring in countless swoon-worthy flicks for about eight years.

His comeback special would bring him back into live music.

1968 Comeback Special Performance

A part of his epic comeback included a tribute to one of the most powerful and influential activists ever, Martin Luther King Jr. Elvis captivated audiences with his performances, but his final song was an emotional masterpiece.

He performed “If I Can Dream,” which is a song inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. He was known for his legendary and thought-provoking speech declaring to the world that he had a dream — a dream that must become a reality.

King Jr. was assassinated eight months before Presley’s special on April 4, 1968.

Elvis’ show was meant to be a showcase of diversity and acceptance. The director of the special, Steve Binder, spoke about what inspired this final song many years later.

“I thought: ‘Nobody knows this about this guy.’ When I put that show together, it was a United Nations staff – a Puerto Rican choreographer, Black choreographer​ -​ everybody came from different faiths, religions and countries. And I didn’t see any sign of prejudice and I wanted to get that message out more than anything,” Binder said to Express.

‘If I Can Dream’: Behind the Elvis Presley Song

The song “If I Can Dream” was written by Walter Earl Brown. It was published by Elvis Presley’s music publishing company, Gladys Music, Inc., and recorded in June 1969.

The song actually has direct quotations from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963.

For example, in the first verse of the song, Presley sings, “If I can dream of a better land / Where all my brothers walk hand in hand.” This is similar to the end of King’s speech where he states, “And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands …”

It was a song that Elvis Presley was incredibly fond of. According to Genius.com, one of the backup singers during the comeback special started crying. They stated, “Elvis has never sung with so much emotion before. He means every word.”

When he first heard the song he stated, “I’m never going to sing another song I don’t believe in. I’m never going to make another picture I don’t believe in.” Although Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, didn’t believe it was the kind of song Presley performed, Elvis proceeded with recording it.