Posts Tagged ‘Booker T and the MGs’

Memphis music has often contained heightened racial elements in its constitution—  sometimes purely African-American innovation, or a band of Hispanic musicians, or sometimes strictly white music. But sometimes musicians have crossed racial barriers to create a magical hybrid that wouldn’t have happened if racial restrictions had been observed.

Oppressed blacks in the South often used music in a biblical sense, like Joshua at Jericho, to tear down walls. Freedom songs. There was also something illicit for white teenagers listening to rhythm-and-blues music, in a time of discrimination against African-Americans and black culture, that made it more appealing. Another piece of the racial divide crumbled because these boundaries were breached. Music doesn’t spring fully formed in a cultural vacuum but, instead, is inextricably linked to its context. Segregation, and the fight against it, was a large part of this region’s musical history.

Slavery had been an institution in the United States for over 200 years before the Civil War. When the war ended in 1865, African-Americans expected to become full and equal citizens in American society. Instead, a century-long battle against second-class status in a segregated society ensued. During the period of history known as Reconstruction, ex-Confederates were removed from power in Southern states and the Federal government attempted to remake the South. This period was short lived and by 1877, white-dominated Southern state legislatures regained power and enacted laws to disenfranchise blacks and others. This system of laws and discriminatory customs was referred to as Jim Crow, named after a popular minstrel show character. These laws barred blacks from voting by instituting prohibitive poll taxes and literacy tests. The laws also segregated education for their children and created dismal economic conditions and humiliation for people of color. Jim Crow remained in effect from the late 1800s through the 1960s.

The U.S. Supreme Court dismally failed to uphold the rights of African-Americans in rulings on the Civil Rights Act of 1883 and Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. These rulings were the start of legalized segregation. Whites and blacks were separated in schools and colleges, restaurants, trains, public bathrooms and drinking fountains, prisons and churches. Beyond these oppressive laws were terroristic organizations like the Klu Klux Klan, founded in Pulaski, TN in 1866. White-supremacist groups murdered thousands by mob lynchings, burning people alive, shootings, beatings and bombings.

Ida B. Wells (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931) was an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement, born in Holly Springs, MS. At age 16, she lost her parents and brother to the yellow-fever epidemic of 1878. Working as a teacher to support her siblings, she moved them to Memphis in 1883. In 1884, she refused to give up her seat on a train and was dragged out of the car by the conductor and two men. Wells sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad company and won the case, but lost the appeal.

youtube: Ida Wells

Ida B. Wells began writing newspaper articles about injustices against blacks. When three of her friends who owned a grocery store were mobbed, lynched and killed, she began a nationwide anti-lynching crusade. Blacks were being lynched for failing to pay debts, not “giving way” to whites and for competing economically. Wells wrote about these injustices in her pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its [sic] Phases. A mob destroyed her offices in Memphis so she moved to Chicago. She took her campaign to England and garnered support from the press and powerful public figures in order to put pressure on her foes in the States.

The NAACP was founded in 1909 to fight lynching, voter discrimination, employment discrimination, legal process issues and educational inequality. National politics in the 1920s and 30s were shifting, as well. Herbert Hoover had been sent to the South to deal with the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, but blacks had been treated poorly in this government program and many were conscripted at gunpoint to build levees. Hoover made promises to the black community that he didn’t keep and there was a major political backlash. FDR’s Depression-era New Deal solution sealed one of the largest political shifts in American politics.

African-Americans’ service in World War II had a large effect on Civil Rights. In 1945, Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Jackie Robinson as the first black Major League Baseball player. Court cases in the 1940s and 50s also began to chip away at segregation—particularly 1954’s Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling which declared segregated schools unconstitutional.

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In 1955, a year that saw the brutal murder of Emmet Till and the Scottsboro Boys falsely accused of raping two white women, 43-year-old Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, AL bus. She was jailed for this offense and the black community boycotted the bus company for a year. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged from this boycott as the leader of the movement. Civil rights activists began using acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience, boycotts, sit-ins and marches in order to affect change. In 1957, the governor of Arkansas used the National Guard to block nine black students from attending Little Rock High School. President Eisenhower countered by sending in Federal troops. Federal troops also had to quell riots at the University of Mississippi before its first black student could attend. The civil rights activists were continually met with fierce opposition— arrests, beatings, shootings, arson and murder.

Four college students in Greensboro, NC began sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. 1961 saw the Freedom Rides, as activists rode buses from Washington, D.C. into the South to register blacks to vote. Southern white racists responded with violence. Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was shot in front of his home in 1963. (His killer was finally convicted in 1994.)  A church was bombed in Birmingham leaving four young girls dead. Three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi and two more were slain in Selma, AL.

Martin Luther King, Jr. lead protests through the Freedom Summer of 1964, including the marches on Washington D.C. and from Selma to Montgomery, AL. The attention of the world was focused on the civil rights struggle. In 1968, a labor dispute between the City of Memphis Sanitation Workers and the municipal government drew Dr. King to lead a march on their behalf. Marchers held signs declaring their humanity. Dr. King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. He joined the ranks of many other lesser-known but equally important Civil Rights martyrs— Willie McGee, Rev. George Wesley Lee, Herbert Lee, Lamar Smith, Clinton Melton, Mack Charles Parker, Corporal Roman Duckworth, Paul Guihard, Clyde Kennard, Jimmy Travis, William Moore, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Charles Eddie Moore, Henry Hezekiah Dee, 14-year-old Herbert Oarsby, Vernon Dahmer, Ben Chester White, Wharlest Jackson, Benjamin Brown, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair and many others.

youtube: Stax and race

Memphis music couldn’t help but be affected by this racial struggle. The black community has often perceived the white music establishment as having made a lot of profit at the expense of exploited black musicians and their innovations. The lives of Rufus Thomas, Sam Phillips, Elvis, Booker T and the MGs, the switch in programming for radio station WDIA, and the whole Stax story are infused with the racial dynamics of this particular time and place.

youtube: I Am A Man

image credits: Corbis-Bettman; Smithsonian; 1897 unknown; Corbis-Bettman;; UPI; Will Counts; James Louw