Wednesday, 4 March 2009

A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America

by Craig Hansen Werner

Many of the students looked to the folk revival for perspectives and information excluded from the nightly news. The framers of the Port Huron Statement belonged to the first generation raised on television; many of them were enthralled by the moral dramas the SCLC constructed for the nationwide audience. In the early days of the movement, TV coverage usually placed viewers in a position closer to the demonstrators than to the authorities resisting their demands. White middle-class viewers in the North gazed into the steely eyes of state troopers snatching American flags out of the hands of schoolchildren in Jackson, Mississippi, shared the tension as the Freedom Riders--white ministers wearing clerical collars and well-dressed young black men--were swept away by the hurricane of violence in the Birmingham bus station. In her autobiography, Joan Baez describes King's constant awareness that the whole world was watching his every move. Walking beside King during an SCLC-sponsored campaign in Grenada, Mississippi, Baez responded angrily to the crowd harassing the marchers:
They looked particularly pasty, frightened, and unhappy on this day, not at all like a "superior race." I whispered to King, "Martin, what in the hell are we doing? You want these magnificent spirits to be like them?," indicating the miserable little band on the opposite curb. "We must be nuts!" King nodded majestically at an overanxious cameraman, and said out of the corner of his mouth, "Ahem . . . Not while the cameras are rollin'."
The SCLC's most effective use of the media strategy occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, where fire hoses and police dogs deployed against black schoolchildren made a clear moral statement in living rooms and dens throughout white America.

However biased in favor of the movement TV coverage might have seemed to George Wallace or Spiro Agnew--the godfathers of Rush Limbaugh's "liberal media" hallucination--white students seeking the meanings behind the SCLC's carefully orchestrated morality plays found television useless. Many of them turned to folk music, to Baez, Dylan, Phil Ochs ("Talking Birmingham Jam," "Too Many Martyrs (The Ballad of Medgar Evers)," and the devastating satire "Love Me, I'm a Liberal") and Peter, Paul & Mary ("Very Last Day," "If I Had a Hammer," and the hit version of "Blowin' in the Wind"). The folk singers provided the kind of insight the students sought.

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