Tag Archives: Civil Rights Movement

Black History Month 2015: The Staple Singers

13 Feb

TheSlowDrag-TheStapleSingersToday we honor and celebrate a talented family whose distinctive approach to “Message Music” helped form the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America. The Staple Singers comprised father, singer, and guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his daughters, lead vocalist Mavis Staples and vocalist Cleotha Staples, with siblings Pervis and Yvonne joining as vocalists off and on through the years. Blending southern blues, traditional gospel, early rock era R&B, and protest folk, their powerful harmonies drove a message of tolerance, diversity, strength, and progress.

Roebuck Staples was born the youngest son of sharecroppers in Mississippi. He learned to play guitar listening to the blues greats in the region and played in a few joints in his youth. In the early 30s he moved to Chicago to seek out a better life for his family, gradually moving them all north. His interest in music continued moving into gospel singing. Soon the whole family was joining in. Their unique, instinctive harmonies, supported by Pops’ eerie, tremolo-drenched guitar work, gave them a sound that stood out even in Chicago’s talented gospel community.

The original core quartet (all but Yvonne) began playing gigs at a number of local churches and eventually landed a recording contract. For a while Pops continued to work a regular job, but as the Staple Singers began to tour he eventually committed to music full time. The group found themselves in an interesting musical position. Pops wanted to avoid pop love songs and dark blues themes, focusing on joy, hope, and inspiration. Unlike other Gospel acts, they incorporated some original material and a variety of songs that  fit their message. Unlike acts like local friend Sam Cooke, who fully embraced pop and soul and made successful career transitions, their adherence to their own vision kept their audience somewhat small.

Touring mostly the south in the 1950s was a tricky business for an African-American family. They had difficulty finding food and lodging in many places, relying heavily on an unofficial network of homes and boardinghouses that supported the Gospel community. Driving a large Cadillac through the rural south brought them plenty of grief from local law enforcement including a brief stint in jail because of the significant amount of money — their legitimate wages — found in the trunk of their car. These experiences honed their desire to empower the black community and to provide messages of hope and strength.

They became enmeshed in the growing civil rights movement, often performing in locations where black activists were speaking. Their Message Music merged perfectly with the push for equality and their personal experiences informed performances that were as passionate as the preachers’ and activists’ speeches. Pops became close friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Staples often adjusted their touring schedule to accompany his appearances.

While becoming a critical part of the movement, they began breaking down musical barriers as well. Already deeply connected to the soul and R&B communities — they were friends with singers Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin and many others as well as their families — their sound began expanding. They performed at the Newport Folk Festival, launching a long career of participating in folk events. They befriended Bob Dylan and the Band and their music informed the Rolling Stones’ early hit The Last Time. Pops’ guitar work was so famous that producer Jerry Wexler insisted that Joe South emulate it for his great guitar intro to Aretha Franklin’s smash Chain of Fools.

The Staples were famous and successful but limited in audience. Labels weren’t sure how to promote them — not just gospel but not fully folk, pop, or soul. They finally found their breakthrough, signing with Stax and recording at the famous Muscle Shoals studio. The blend of their Message Music with the earthy sound of the Shoals musicians — a bunch of young white men inspired by the rich musical culture around them — and caught fire. They began a string of hits that included the classic Respect Yourself and their signature song, the #1 pop and R&B hit I’ll Take You There. For awhile the Staple Singers were musical royalty, staying true to their Message Music and pushing for continued progress in civil rights.

By the late 70s, changing musical tastes and a long career of  performing resulted in a gradual reduction in Staples’ material. Pops was in his 60s and Mavis became interested in a solo career. They re-emerged in the 90s, with musicians like Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt championing their pivotal roles in music and activism. Pops recorded two acclaimed solo albums, winning a Grammy award in his 80s. He died in 2000 at the age of 85.

Mavis continues to record and perform today. She has grown comfortable with her role as a musical elder with an important message. Given the horrible racism that has surfaced in recent years, she wonders what happened to all the work the Staples and their contemporaries did. Activism is as important now as then, she observes.

It makes me think of my father’s song Why Am I Treated So Bad? I’m sixtey-seven years old and I was here the first time around and now I’m still here and it’s still not fixed. I’m here to let you all know that I’m still not pleased. … It’s the 21st Century. We should be ashamed of ourselves. We don’t teach enough black history in the schools. But I’m the history — I’ll be the history. The kids need to know.

Fifty years into an impressive career, the Staples family still has something to say. And it certainly still matters.


Black History Month 2014: Alice Walker

9 Feb

Alice WalkerWhat better day to honor and pay tribute to Alice Walker than today, her 70th birthday?  Happy Birthday, Ms. Walker! She was born in 1944 in Putnam County, Georgia — between Atlanta and Augusta. Walker attended Spelman College in Atlanta, where she had the amazing Howard Zinn as one of her professors.  Walker reports that Zinn helped influence her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Walker’s support and admiration of Zinn also meant she, like Zinn, would have to leave Spelman. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1965.

I fell in love with Alice Walker in 1983, when I read The Color Purple, a novel that has such amazing pain, grace, humility, and forgiveness.  The movie version was released in 1985 and — while different from the book — was also a wonderful experience that I love. On a side note, I have to say that I was crushed when Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey were robbed of an Academy Award for their respective performances. Then I read Meridian (a brilliant quasi-autobiographical book addressing her activism in Mississippi during the civil rights movement), and was equally captivated by Walker’s voice. In Possessing the Secret of Joy, Walker takes on the issue of female mutilation/circumcision.

Walker does an amazing job of addressing intersectionality, the multiple layers of identity people carry and the potential barriers people face because of those real or perceived identities. In her books, Walker manages to challenge racism, sexism, homophobia, and all of the other isms people face. I dare say, I feel more complete as a human being just for having read her work. Walker’s breadth of work demonstrates great compassion for gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation. It is difficult to read her novels and not end up at a better place than where you started. My dear friend, Debbie Mix, read one my favorite poems by Walker at my wedding. The poem is:

Beyond What

We reach for destinies beyond
what we have come to know
and in the romantic hush
of promises
perceive each
the other’s life
as known mystery.
Shared. But inviolate.
No melting. No squeezing
into One.
We swing our eyes around
as well as side to side
to see the world.

To choose, renounce,
this, or that –
call it a council between equals
call it love.

I also read this poem at Debbie’s wedding.  Keep the good energy rolling and read some Alice Walker. Gratefully, there is a lovely documentary on PBS (American Masters) celebrating the gift that is Alice Walker.

The Butler: The Personal is Political

23 Aug

OPRAH WINFREY and FOREST WHITAKER star in THE BUTLER My husband and I went to movie night on $5 Tuesdays here in Portland. We finally got to see the much acclaimed The Butler.  Of course, I would probably see anything with Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding, Jr, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, and Vanessa Redgrave.   This all-star cast did not let anyone down.  While all of them give fantastic performances, I have to say that Whitaker and Winfrey give nothing less than Academy Award winning performances.   Some may remember that Whitaker earned an Academy  Award for his stellar performance in the Last King of Scotland. However, sadly Winfrey was robbed of an academy award for her stellar performance as Sofia in one of my favorite movies of all time, The Color Purple. 

The Butler does a marvelous job of weaving threads of fiction and non-fiction to create a compelling story of one man’s awakening to the realization that the personal is political against a backdrop of our nations’ ugly history around race.  If only race relations could be relegated to the past, but they cannot be yet — we still have so far to go.   Everything we do and in every way we live our lives, we are making a political statement.

The movie does a phenomenal job capturing the series of presidents under which Cecil Gains (Forest Whitaker) serves.  While LBJ was not someone I would want to my house for dinner, he was a great president and one of his greatest legacies was the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which has now been gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Sadly, the movie also exposes the great flaws of the Reagans and how Reagan’s stand on apartheid put him on the wrong side of history.  Fonda does an amazing job of portraying Nancy Reagan.

I loved that the movie delved into the Freedom Riders and the need for the Black Panther movement.  However, I was sad that Bayard Rustin was not mentioned at all.  I am glad to see that both Rustin and Winfrey will be receiving awards later this year.

Winfrey is just as amazing in The Butler as she was in The Color Purple.  Her character, Gloria, is a complex alcoholic grappling with a husband working as a subversive — albeit he does not know his job is in and of itself subversive — and losing a son to the Vietnam War. (Another waste of human lives for a war that should never have been.)

Just to prove how much we need this movie, a theater in Kentucky has refused to screen The Butler.  So much for freedom of speech.  My esteem (while already quite low because of Rand Paul) just dropped even further.

We were glued to our seats during the entire movie and I so hope most people in the United States see this movie.  The Civil Rights Movement is not over–we still have a long way to go and we still so desperately need people like John Lewis.  Let me know what you think of the movie.

Happy 100th Birthday, Bayard Rustin, Social Justice Hero

17 Mar

Happy 100th Birthday!

Bayard Rustin, one of the greatest leaders in the Civil Rights Movement was born on March 17, 1912.  He would have been 100 years old today.  I know TSM has honored this hero before, but I can’t resist honoring him again.  As a country, we are forever in his debt.

Not many people know that it was Bayard Rustin, close confidante to Dr. King, that worked with King on techniques for nonviolent resistance.  Yes, that’s right NONVIOLENT–what a world away we are now, with the likes of good old whitey Palin and Angle promoting violence.  Rustin was an openly gay black man working tirelessly for civil rights.  I cannot fully articulate my admiration for this man.  Of course at the time he was working with Dr. King, it was illegal just to be homosexual.  Some believe that Rustin’s effectiveness was compromised because he was openly gay.  Unfortunately, Rustin started to worry that his integral part in the civil rights movement would undermine the efficacy of the movement and thus offered to step aside.  King supported Rustin’s move to step aside.  As much as I respect and honor Dr. King, I wish he would have shown more support for Rustin.  Here is a great video clip that credits Rustin for the March on Washington in 1963.  To learn more about Bayard Rustin, I encourage you to read a great biography called, lost prophet:the life and times of Bayard Rustin.  There is also a movie about his life called: Brother Outsider.

Black History Month 2012: Ralph Bunche

17 Feb

Today we honor a celebrated diplomat and political scientist, Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche. In 1950, Bunche was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in Palestine, the first person of color to be awarded this honor.

Ralph Bunche was born in Detroit, MI at the turn of the 20th Century. He was a brilliant student, emerging top of his class in high school and at UCLA. He earned his Master’s and PhD in Political Science from Harvard while teaching at Howard University. He chaired the Howard PoliSci department from 1928 to 1950.

During World War II, Bunche served with the OSS and parlayed that experience into a post with the State Department after the war. He was closely involved in creating the charter for the nascent United Nations and worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt on the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Starting in 1947, he began working on the Arab-Israeli conflict and was the UN’s primary negotiator. Firm but fair, he was respected by all parties and helped craft the first major Middle-East armistice. He went on to help mediate in numerous other strife-torn regions and was eventually made UN Undersecretary-General.

Bunche was also involved in US politics, especially the civil rights movement. He helped support the 1963 March on Washington and was an outspoken advocate for racial equality. Despite his prominence, he suffered direct racism in his neighborhood, being denied membership in a local tennis club in 1959. Ralph Bunche was an amazing force for good in the world. Let us try to live up to his vision:

May there be, in our time, at long last, a world at peace in which we, the people, may for once begin to make full use of the great good that is in us.

Women’s History: April 12

12 Apr

Josephine Baker

It was April 12, 1975 that we lost the legendary Josephine Baker.  Often known as the Black Pearl, Black Venus, or Creole Goddess, this expatriate was said to have garnered more than 1,500 marriage proposals. Like many African Americans of her generation, dangerous racism in the United States drove her to become a star in Paris. Upon returning to the United States on occasion, she would only perform for integrated audiences. She also made it back to the US to speak with Dr. King in 1963 at the March on Washington. After Dr. King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King approached Baker to take a leading role in the Civil Rights Movement. Baker declined so she could take care of the “Rainbow Tribe,” the twelve children she adopted. Although Baker was married to Jean Lion and became a French citizen, her son Jean-Claude Baker documents her many lesbian affairs in his book Josephine: The Hungry Heart. When I first became of a fan of Baker’s back in the 1980s, I had only known her to be lesbian, but now it seems commonly accepted that she was bisexual.  One of her more famous affairs was with Frida Kahlo. How sad that her fame in the United States would be achieved only posthumously because of the color of her skin.  Well at least we are in a post-racist society now–oops,there are the Tea Party and  the birther movement.  To learn more about Josephine Baker, click here.

Women’s History: April 9

9 Apr

Honoring Marian Anderson

Although Marian Anderson was one of the best known contraltos in the 20th Century, she did not have an easy time securing venues for her amazingly beautiful instrument. All during Anderson’s career and lifetime, America was a very race torn and divided country, not like today, cough cough cough!  In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson to sing to an integrated audience.  I can just see Michele Bachmann again saying, ” we need to remember that all of us came here to be free,” and Marian Anderson looking at her saying, “Excuse me?”

With the help of President and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Marian Anderson performed her critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, in 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson would spend the rest of her life breaking down barriers for both women and blacks.

While Antonin Scalia and Rand Paul will hate the introductory comments from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, they are certainly germane right now.  I hope you enjoy the video of the recording of Marian Anderson. Click here to hear FDR’s introduction and Anderson’s performance.

Standing Up For the New Civil Rights Movement

16 Mar

Stop Discrimination

For those that actually know history, it was not that long ago that African Americans were denied  the right to legally marry in the United States, (Jumping the Broom Ceremonies amongst slaves) despite the completely insane and revisionist history that comes out of Michele Bachmann’s mouth. Even more scary is that states like Alabama did not repeal the miscegenation laws until 2000–yes, you read that correctly.  Today we have a new civil rights movement!  Regardless of how many of you may personally feel about marriage equality for the LGBT community, YOU do not have the right to legislate discrimination.  Nor do those of you that hold the power dynamic get to claim to be the victim while persecuting and bullying the LGBT community.

Fortunately, a majority of Americans do believe that we have to repeal DOMA, despite the bigoted efforts of John Boehner and his need to waste tax payer money to defend bigotry. In fact, a majority of voters do not want the GOP to defend the law in court, and are in agreement with the president’s decision to not defend DOMA. Click here to see the full article.  Thank you to my friend Lee Dorsey for inspiring me to craft this article.

Celebrating Black History Month: February 25

25 Feb

A Voice of Social Justice

Today I would like to honor and pay tribute to Marian Wright Edelman. Edelman is probably best known for her work in the Civil Rights Movement and as the Founder of Children’s Defense Fund. Edelman was the first black woman admitted in the Mississippi Bar when she began practicing law for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund.  Edelman has dedicated her life to issues around social justice, specifically in protecting and giving voice to youth. She helped to create the Head Start Program. Included in the many awards she has earned are: the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award, and a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship. In 2000, Edelman was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Edelman has written eight books including, Agenda for Social Change and I Can Make a Difference. I hope I will be considered a great agent of change as we have in our Marian Wright Edelman.

A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back – but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you.–Marian Wright Edelman

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