My American Identity

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Some history to explain the current situation


Chapter 5

How black Americans won over white society


A story is told that the Sun and the Wind were having a conversation. Spotting a man wearing a jacket, they made a bet who could make him take off the jacket first. The Wind thought that would be easy. Blowing up a storm, he huffed and puffed but the man only pulled the jacket more tightly around him. Now it was the Sun’s turn. His hot rays poured down upon the earth and the temperature rose. Sweating from the heat, the man removed his jacket. The Sun’s gentler approach had won.

This tale describes the Civil Rights movement. A half century ago, black people were struggling to gain dignity and equality in a predominantly white society. Whites outnumbered them by almost a ten-to-one margin. Was it possible for this small minority of the population to force whites to give up their social advantage or would gentle persuasion work better? Alternatively put, did black people win the Civil Rights struggle primarily through their own militant effort or did they have whites to thank? A little of both would be my answer.

the wind blows to force racial change

The story begins with black people’s emancipation from slavery and the efforts of Booker T. Washington and others to cope with living in freedom by adapting to white people’s ways. That approach was opposed by W.E.B. DuBois, a graduate of Fisk and Harvard universities who later became a principal founder and publications director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Founded in 1909, this became a political and legal vehicle to aid black people struggling for equality. One of its principal activities was to file lawsuits challenging Jim Crow laws in the south. The NAACP supported the Scottsboro Boys, challenged the southern “white primary” system, and opposed lynching. Perhaps its greatest victory came in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in the public schools.

Rosa Parks was secretary of the NAACP’s chapter in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a racially segregated local bus. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, organized a black boycott of the public bus system that lasted more than a year. Ultimately, the U.S. District Court ruled against racial segregation on public buses in Montgomery. Dr. King went on to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, and then to organize demonstrations and marches, including the famous 1963 March on Washington, for more than a decade until he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher drawn to Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent protest, whose mode of activity resembled that of a labor leader. Union officials such as Walter P. Reuther, head of the auto workers, gave him political support. So, in the story of the NAACP, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and others there was black-led political struggle in which blacks, though assisted by whites, themselves gained the victory. In terms of our opening parable, they stirred things up to the point that the southern segregationist was forced to take off his jacket of racial restrictions, if only to avoid the bad publicity.

It should also be noted that there was a “good cop - bad cop” aspect to this struggle. Dr. King and his supporters were the “good cops” - they were Christians who advocated and practiced non-violence. The bad cops were others in the black community such as the Black Muslims, who advocated racial separation and developed a para-military contingent for self-defense. From a Christian and Jewish perspective, their Muslim identity put them outside the fold of the “good” people.

Other, even worse “cops” were the blacks who engaged in violence or advocated this as a path to freedom. There were the Black Panthers of Oakland, California, whose members espoused “Black Power” and carried guns. Some of its members were convicted of murder. Before that, Robert F. Williams, president of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP, led a movement that favored blacks arming themselves to fight the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1961, the FBI put out a warrant for Williams’ arrest on kidnapping charges. He fled to Cuba where he published a book, “Negroes with Guns”, and made regular radio addresses to southern blacks on a station known as “Radio Free Dixie”. Williams later lived in China before returning to the United States in 1969. Ironically, his services as an expert on China were then eagerly sought by the government as Nixon and Mao began their rapprochement.

Finally, there were the anonymous blacks who rioted and set fire to a number of large American cities in the 1960s. There were riots in Harlem and Philadelphia in 1964. In 1965, a five-day riot in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles killed 34 persons, injured 1,032 others, and damaged or destroyed 1,000 buildings. Likewise, in Detroit, in the 1967 riots, 43 persons were killed, 467 were injured, and over 2,000 buildings were burned to the ground. When Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968, riots broke out in 115 cities across the nation. Some of the worst were in Chicago, Boston, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. The idea was, after Dr. King’s assassination, that, if whites would not listen to a man of peace, their communities would burn.

The heavyweight boxer, Muhammad Ali, played another part in this drama. In some respects, he belonged to the “bad” group. He was a Muslim sometimes seen with Malcolm X whispering in his ear. His profession as a boxer evoked violence. Yet, he also enjoyed popularity and respect among whites. Ali was a champion - winner of the gold medal in light heavyweight boxing at the 1960 Olympics who became the world’s heavyweight champion as the result of an upset victory over Sonny Liston in 1964. He was good-looking and articulate, and had a touch of culture as evidenced by reciting short lines of poetry before his bouts.

Muhammad Ali was a hero to white anti-war protesters for being a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong ... They never called me nigger,” he explained. In insisting that sports writers call him by his new name instead of Cassius Clay, Ali pioneered the politics of language. In the ring, he promised to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” He was, in his own words, “the greatest”. He was, in any event, a black man who stood up for himself and his beliefs.

ideology gives way to sports and entertainment

Muhammad Ali is a kind of transition figure between blacks who tried to force integration politically and those who used charm. Keep in mind that America had entered the entertainment age. African-American culture was then in the process of influencing an American pop culture that had become worldwide. Black people had provided models of entertainment for whites since the days of the minstrel shows. Now their music was setting the trend. As entertainers, they were getting respect.

It may have started in the sports field. A black boxer like Jack Johnson gained respect when, in 1910, he showed he could beat a white champion like James Jeffries. Then came Joe Louis in the 1930s and 1940s. Most of the heavyweight boxing champions in recent years have been black. A black sprinter, Jesse Owens, won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. In the sport of baseball, black players competed in a separate league until Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, put Jackie Robinson in the Dodger’s starting lineup for the 1947 season. Robinson played for ten seasons and had a career batting average of .311. Black athletes have also had outstanding records in football, basketball, and other professional sports.

Those performances commanded respect. But a greater contribution came in the black influence on popular music. In the early part of the 20th century, symphonic music that had been created by European composers entertained audiences everywhere. Blacks had limited impact on this type of music. However, Americans were also becoming interested in ragtime and jazz which had originated in the black community. Black Gospel music became popular. In the 1950s, a new musical genre called rock ‘n roll took the nation by storm. Such music had its roots in the black community although Elvis Presley and other white singers were its principal popularizers.

In the 1960s, American politics was at a crossroads. There was the “old left”, consisting of communists, socialists, and labor-oriented groups. There was the “new left”, consisting of people like Tom Hayden, the yippies, and race activists. A principal difference between these two groups was that the former was focused on serious ideas and had plans for changing the world. The people in the new left were media conscious. They were more into personal freedom and wanted to have fun. “I’m a Marxist,” read one tee shirt: “Groucho, not Karl.” Groucho Marx made people laugh; his distant relative Karl was the grim ideologue behind the Cold War.

Young middle-class Americans were then creating a new culture that combined the fight for racial equality with anti-war activism, drug experimentation, free love, and an appreciation of rock ‘n roll music. John Lennon, chief songwriter of the Beatles, had a clear picture of what was happening. His song, “Revolution”, told of change from the old to a new type of culture. Two stanzas, in particular, tell the story:

“When you want money for minds that hate,
all I can say, brother, is you’ll have to wait.”

If that message was not specific enough, there was also this:

“But when you start carryin’ pictures of Chairman Mao,
you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.”

In other words, the old-style leftist politics was no longer cool. Why be angry? If you want to make it with the chicks, you’ll need to go with the new program which is really no program at all but a pursuit of individual freedom and just having fun.

the sun shines on the desegregationist cause

With respect to race relations, attitudes were changing in America. There was a grudging recognition, after World War II, that the nation should not deny equal citizenship to returning black veterans of that war. There was also what I call the “Mississippi-Chicago connection”. It had two parts, a negative and a positive.

The negative was the murder of Emmett Till. Till was a 14-year-old black male from Chicago who went down to visit his uncle in the town of Money, Mississippi, in August 1955. Knowing little of southern customs, he made the mistake of whistling at a white woman while leaving a grocery store. Several days later, he disappeared. Till’s body was found at the bottom of the Tallahatchie river. A 70-pound fan was tied to his neck with barbed wire. Two white men were put on trial for the murder. An all-white jury acquitted them after deliberations lasting about an hour.

Emmett Till’s body was taken back to Chicago for burial. His mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted that the casket be left open at the funeral parlor so people could see her son’s badly disfigured face. An estimated 50,000 people filed past the coffin. Photographs of the corpse appeared in several publications, creating an international uproar. Look magazine paid the acquitted killers $4,000 to tell their story. Safe from double prosecution, they freely admitted that they had murdered Till. Now there could be no doubt that justice had miscarried. Whites as well as blacks could see the ugly face of racial discrimination in the South. The country was ready for racial change.

On a more positive note, a self-taught blues musician named McKinley Morganfield from rural Mississippi came up to Chicago in 1940 and, after returning to Mississippi for two years, again in 1943. He was a musician skilled on the guitar who called himself “Muddy Waters”. His story is told in the 2008 film, “Cadillac Records”. This film is about Chess Records, a recording studio in Chicago which developed the blues talents of black artists like Muddy Waters, “Little Walter” Jacobs, “Howlin’ Wolf” (Chester Burnett), and female vocalist Etta James in the 1940s and 1950s.

Muddy Waters’ music was inspired by two blues artists who were popular in the south in the 1930s. After he moved to Chicago in 1943, Waters drove a truck and worked in a factory while playing music at night in clubs. His uncle gave him an electric guitar. In 1946, Waters began recording songs for the Aristocrat label, later renamed “Chess Records”, owned by Leonard and Phil Chess. His 1948 recordings, “I Can’t be Satisfied”, “I Feel Like Going Home” and “Rollin’ Stone”, became big hits. Playing in night clubs with several other musicians, Muddy Waters dominated the blues scene in Chicago in the early 1950s.

The film points out that Leonard Chess gave Muddy Waters and the studio’s other top performers their own Cadillacs. At the peak of his career in 1954, Waters seemed to have it all - fame and fortune, hot women, and a shiny, expensive, new car - not bad for a former sharecropper from Mississippi. However, jealousy and dissension developed between the performers. Several band members struck out on their own. As record sales grew, there was a suspicion that Chess was taking out too much in profits and not giving his performers their fair share of the money.

Certain disk jockeys were requiring a cut of record sales. Worst of all, by the late ‘50s, Waters’ popularity as a blues musician was waning as rock ‘n roll became the new craze.
The limelight now shifted to another black singer, Chuck Berry, who had pioneered the new sound. In 1955, Chess Records recorded his song, “Maybellene”; it sold one million copies and topped the Rhythm and Blues charts. Other hits that followed included “Rock and Roll Music”, “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Johnny B. Goode”. Berry became friends with Carl Perkins and, in 1957, toured with the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and other white rock musicians. The film suggested that white artists such as the Beach Boys were ripping off Berry’s music. They took his songs, made a few changes, and then put out their own versions without paying royalties. Rock ‘n roll music was largely a black creation, but whites reaped most of the rewards.

Satisfaction came in the 1960s when several British rock stars acknowledged their debt to the black musical pioneers. The Rolling Stones told Waters that their group was named after one of his early hits. John Lennon of the Beatles (named after Buddy Holly and the Crickets) said: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’”. When he was considered washed up in America, Muddy Waters unexpectedly received an invitation to tour in Great Britain where he was acclaimed as a pioneer of blues and rock music. He was one of the musical greats.

From the standpoint of race relations, the most significant part of this story is the “cross over” of black music to white audiences. Muddy Waters, the blues artist, appealed mainly to blacks. His music was played on black radio stations and in black clubs; but the real money lay in appealing to whites. That’s why it so was important, Leonard Chess explained, to get disk jockey Alan Freed (who invented the term “rock ‘n roll”) to play Waters’ records on a white station in Cleveland.

However, the cross-over phenomenon really began with the music pioneered by Chuck Berry. The film, “Cadillac Records”, showed Berry playing to an audience consisting of both black and white fans. The two groups were separated by a rope. Some of the whites crossed over into the black section and soon it was a racially integrated event. Chuck Berry, who refused to stay in segregated hotels, sometimes slept in his car. At night, white girls would come to him offering sex. This is what most disturbed “white America” - black men messing with their women. Berry himself was sentenced to five years in prison for transporting an underage woman across state lines.

Besides Chess Records, recording studios such as Stax Records of Memphis and Motown Records of Detroit produced “black” music that crossed over to white audiences. These reached a peak in the 1960s and early 1970s. Then came black superstars such as Michael Jackson, youngest member of the “Jackson 5”, whose 1982 album “Thriller” is the best-selling album of all time. The Jackson 5 signed with Motown in 1968 and soon produced four #1 hit singles. Prince (Nelson) of Minneapolis followed in Jackson’s steps with his 1984 hit, “Purple Rain”. By this time, pop music had become integrated with video and film.

The history of rock ‘n roll music must, of course, include Elvis Presley. He was a poor white boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who had moved to Memphis, Tennessee. His parents gave him a guitar on his 11th birthday and his uncle gave him guitar lessons. Unlike some of the other white pioneers of rock ‘n roll, Elvis did not consciously imitate black artists. His first influence was Gospel music in an Assembly of God church. Young Elvis was also a fan of the white Country music star, Hank Snow, and of a hillbilly singer, “Mississippi Slim” who played on a Tupelo radio station. In Memphis, however, he also hung out in places that featured black blues music and knew many of the artists, including B.B. King. Presley had an ear for music of all sorts.

When Elvis Presley broke out in the mid 1950s after several years of career floundering, he was seen as a white man who could sing and act like a black. Sam Phillips, who first recorded him in July 1953, is alleged to have said: “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” That man was Elvis. With his side burns and enigmatic sneer, he resembled the young white rebel made popular by James Dean. But his musical style was something else.

Before he became famous, many who heard Elvis Presley on the radio thought he was a black singer. He was singing the energetic, impassioned music that had emerged from blues. Evocative of black sexuality, he swiveled his hips on stage. Presley became known as “Elvis the pelvis”. An FBI report described his public performances as “a strip-tease with clothes on.” Elvis's "motions and gestures ... (were) ... like those of masturbation or riding a microphone.” When Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in September 1956, cameramen were instructed to show only the upper part of his body and exclude the swiveling hips.

Here we had a rock ‘n roll singer with whom white audiences could directly identity. There need be no “cross over” from the black music scene. In effect, however, Elvis did introduce “black music” to the majority white culture, and make it respectable, and eventually dominant. Other artists of all races and nationalities followed. Rock ‘n roll became, in Alan Freed’s words, “a river of music that has absorbed many streams: rhythm and blues, jazz, rag time, cowboy songs, country songs, folk songs. All have contributed to the big beat." The music has gone international, appealing to young (and middle-aged) people in all places on earth.

That is what I meant by the Sun persuading a man to take off his jacket - in this case, the jacket of racial separation. For all the talk about black peoples’ political movements, racial integration might never have come about in America by that approach alone. It took cultural persuasion, in the form of sports heroes and rock ‘n roll musicians, to capture the hearts of white people and make them change their minds about the black race.

the music finds receptive ears among white students

However, there is something else in the mix which may be significant. That would be white readiness to accept racial change. Far from having to be pushed to accept black culture, they eagerly embraced it. Those white teenagers at Chuck Berry performances or Elvis’ screaming fans did not have to be sold on appreciating this type of music. They wanted it on their own. They wanted this low-down, sensual music for what it represented to them personally. The black experience represented an alternative to their own parched lives. So that is also a part of the story. White teenagers felt emotionally empty because of the type of life they led. This music represented a release from their own confinement. It represented personal freedom - growing up to be an adult.

What we are talking about here is education. Even if education today is seen as a panacea for the problems of youth, there is a dark side too. Remember that, when a child goes to school, he gives up something else. He gives up the personal freedom he had before he reached that age. In the relatively unprogrammed environment of infancy and early childhood, human beings learn many things. They develop their core identities.

In the late 1960s, Americans were spending an average of 12.1 years in school. They may have entered the educational system at the age of five and still been there in their late teens. Day after day, the students sit at their desks listening to the teacher and doing exercises involving the mind. After school, they continue the routine with homework assignments. They are lucky to be here, they are told, because education will get them a better job. The tightly prescribed process then continues into college and then into a career. They are riding an escalator through life without really living.

Think of how the new black music must have affected white teenage boys and girls when it came out in the ‘50s. For all their misery, black people were at least experiencing life. The blues singers sang of real hopes and disappointments. In contrast with the sexually repressed whites cooped up in school, a singer like Muddy Waters was out there getting laid.

Muddy Waters may have been a womanizer who cheated on his wife, but she still loved him. His reputation did not seem to suffer. Having grown up dirt poor in Mississippi, Waters went on to fortune and fame in the Chicago blues scene; he was now driving a Cadillac. There was exuberant passion in his life but only deferred gratification in what the young whites were being urged to pursue. Told they were privileged to be in school, many whites began to realize that they were missing something in their lives.

White students in America during the 1960s, like their counterparts in other countries, rebelled against the system. Young, middle-class Americans waged a political and cultural fight against what some called “plastic America”; it was an institutionalized, corporatized type of society. Young people craved more authentic identities. In the music and life style of the “counter-culture”, they sought refuge from the artificial lives they seemed otherwise destined to assume. Much of their energy was directed at denying their own social background including, in some cases, their identity as pretentious, educated whites. They wanted to become someone else.

Instead of releasing young white people from their institutional chains, higher education reached out more insistently to blacks. It developed special programs to attract minority students, and instituted admissions quotas, scholarships, and “Black Studies” programs. Academia became a home for race radicals. While whites continued to be herded into those places of learning, blacks and other races were now joining them. “Muddy Waters” was now being urged to prep himself for later success. The life was being squeezed equally out of both races.

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