Civil Rights in Song (2): Say it Loud

It’s tempting to see the history of the civil rights movement attaining its high point in 1964/65, then the brutal realities of life for most African-Americans, and Vietnam, soon haunted Black America once more. The civil rights movement also radicalised, with the likes of Malcolm X and Black Power. That national mood was never more evident than in what happened to African-American culture, as in Barbara Jones-Hogu’s Unite (seen above).  That new spirit was also evident in sport. Famously, in the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, in the 200m medal ceremony, two African -American athletes, gold medalist Tommi Smith and bronze medal winner John Carlos gave the black power salute.


Two weeks later, the Yale-Harvard football match saw two black students do the same.

yale harvard 68

The most famous sportsman in the world at this time was Muhammad Ali, whose conversion to the Nation of Islam and refusal to accept the draft, along with his opposition to the war in Vietnam, had seen him becoming a highly political figure. Having been banned from fighting, at the height of his career, he mmade his comeback in 1971. Here, he can be seen giving the black power salute at the time of his famous defeat to Joe Frazier in New York’s Madison Square Gardens in 1971.

ali 71

Black music also changed. Its sound grew more experimental, as fitted the times. Sometimes, it also acquired a new, more political edge.

For most of his career, the great James Brown could hardly be seen as political. By 1968, however, his music had a new edge, as the form known as funk was coming into being. It was also clearly political.

In 1968, in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Dick Holler wrote this song, to the memory of Lincoln, JFK, King and Bobby Kennedy. Abraham. Martin and John was a hit of Dion, but this 1970 version by Marvin Gaye is superior. It also began the process of Gaye’s embrace of a new more innovatory musical language, and politics, that would culminate in his 1971 masterpiece (see Vietnam Songs, and below):

By 1970, the great Gil Scott Heron was around. And The Revolution Will Not Be Televised really had an edge:

By now, Curtis Mayfield had gone from the sweet gospel-tinged soul of The Impressions’ People Get Ready (see part one of this series here), to something very different. (Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go, was hard edged funk, and then some:

And The Last Poets gave us When the Revolution Comes:

We already mentioned Marvin Gayes’s 1971 masterpiece What’s Going On. Here, it’s final track, Inner City Blues, confronts the reality of life for many blacks in early ’70s America.

We met the Staples Singers in the first in this series. By 1972, their sound had grown looser, though the gospel roots are still very evident:

Like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder was a Motown artist. As Little Steve Wonder, he had been a very successful act in his own right, signing with the label age 11. He was also a great songwriter in his own right (he co-wrote Smokey Robinson’s classic Tears of a Clown, for example). Like Gaye, by the end of the ‘sixties Wonder felt restricted by the Motown formula. He was also a gifted musician: on the track below, he played all the instruments. By the time Innervisions came out in 1973, his music also began to acquire a political and social edge. The result was Living for the City:

We’ll finish with a bonus, another Staples Singers classic:

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