But perhaps in no other time in American history did popular music more clearly reflect the political and cultural moment than the soundtrack of the 1960s – one that exemplified a new and overt social consciousness.
That decade, a palpable energy slowly burned and intensified through a succession of events: the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
By the mid-1960s, frustration about the slow pace of change began to percolate with riots in multiple cities. Then, in 1968, two awful events occurred within months of each other: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
At the same time, virtually everyone in the African-American community was directly connected in some way or another to the civil rights movement.
Every year, I revisit this era in an undergraduate class I teach on music, civil rights and the Supreme Court. With this perspective as a backdrop, here are five songs, followed by a playlist that I share with my students.
While they offer a window into the awakening and reckoning of the times, the tracks have assumed a renewed relevance and resonance today.
First made a hit by the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, the song signaled a new consciousness and became the most covered of all Dylan songs.
The song asks a series of questions that appeal to the listener’s moral compass, while the timeless imagery of the lyrics – cannonballs, doves, death, the sky – evoke a longing for peace and freedom that spoke to the era.
“There are songs that are more written by their times than by any individual in that time, a song that the times seem to call for, a song that is just gonna be a perfect strike rolled right down the middle of the lane, and the lane has already been grooved for the strike.”
During a 1963 tour in the South, Cooke and his band were refused lodging at a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana.
African Americans routinely faced segregation and prejudice in the Jim Crow South, but this particular experience shook Cooke.
So he put pen to paper and tackled a subject that represented a departure for Cooke, a crossover artist who made his name with a series of Top 40 hits.
The lyrics reflect the anguish of being an extraordinary pop headliner who nonetheless needs to go through a side door.
Showcasing Cooke’s gospel roots, it’s a song that painfully and beautifully captures the edge between hope and despair.
“It’s been a long, a long time coming,” he croons. “But I know a change is gonna come.”
Sam Cooke, in composing “A Change is Gonna Come,” was also inspired by Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”: According to Cooke’s biographer, upon hearing Dylan’s song, Cooke “was almost ashamed to have not written something like that himself.”
The Supremes were the Motown act with arguably the broadest appeal, and they paved the way for other black artists to enjoy creative success as mainstream acts.
Through their 20 top-10 hits and 17 appearances from 1964 to 1969 on CBS’ popular weekly live program “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the group had a regular presence in the living rooms of black and white families across the country.
“It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher – everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.”
Of course, these five songs can’t possibly do the decade’s music justice.
At a moment when there is a longstanding heated debate over how artists and pop culture figures should engage in social activism, the life and career of musical legend Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington offers a model of how to do it right.
Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C. His tight-knit black middle-class family nurtured his racial pride and shielded him from many of the difficulties of segregation in the nation’s capital. Washington was home to a sizable black middle class, despite prevalent racism. That included the racial riots of 1919’s Red Summer, three months of bloody violence directed at black communities in cities from San Francisco to Chicago and Washington D.C.
Ellington’s development from a D.C. piano prodigy to the world’s elegant and sophisticated “Duke” is welldocumented. Yet a fusion of art and social activism also marked his more than 56-year career.
Ellington’s battle for social justice was personal. Films like the award-winning“Green Book” only hint at the costs of segregation for black performing artists during the 1950s and 60s.
Duke’s experiences reveal the reality.
Cotton Club to Scottsboro Boys
Ellington first rose to fame at Harlem’s “whites only” Cotton Club in the 1920s. There, the only mingling of black and white happened on the piano keyboard itself, as black performers entered through back doors and could not interact with white customers.
Ellington quietly devoted his services to the NAACP and its racial equality activities in the 1930s. Whether it was demanding that black youth have equal entrance rights to segregated dance halls or holding benefit concerts for the Scottsboro Boys, nine black adolescents falsely imprisoned for rape in 1931, Ellington used his growing fame as a prominent band leader for a greater good.
In our literary and historical research on African American entertainment, Ellington’s ability to travel and perform across national boundaries stands out.
After success in Harlem’s night spots, Ellington composed, recorded and appeared in film shorts like 1935’s “Symphony in Black” as himself. He traveled the world with his orchestra, at first performing in the U.K. in the 1930s. Later, Ellington continued to perform on behalf of the U.S. State Department as a “jazz ambassador” in the 1960s and 70s. Audiences in such places as India, Syria, Turkey, Ethiopia and Zambia were given the opportunity to hear and dance to Ellington’s compositions.
However, not even international popularity ensured that hotels would host Ellington’s all-black ensemble during a tour in the U.K. in June 1933. Members scrambled to find boarding homes in London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood when mainstream hotels turned them away on account of their race.
But when Ellington traveled in the South, he still had to hire a private rail car to avoid crowded, poorly maintained “colored only” train seating, or hotels and restaurants that refused service to black Southerners.
Northern or western engagements in the 1930s and 1940s often proved no better. While there were no “white only” signs on the doors of these hotels or restaurants, establishments enforced segregation by telling black customers to enter through back doors or purchase their meals to go.
Bassist Milt Hinton recalled that Ellington and fellow band leader Count Basie often stayed at black-owned boarding houses rather than risk being thrown out or ignored.
White band managers attempted to protect the black bands they managed from these racist practices, but this still did not prevent Ellington from being denied service in a Salt Lake City hotel’s cafe in the 1940s.
Once the civil rights movement of the 1950s began to fight for racial equality through direct-action techniques like mass protests, boycotts and sit-ins, activists in the early 1950s criticized the older Ellington. His subtle activism style had focused on benefit concerts, and not “in the streets” protests.
Ellington used his creative musical talents against racist beliefs that African Americans were inferior or unintelligent.
His diverse and wide-ranging catalog of music demanded the kind of serious attention and respect that had previously only been reserved for elite, white composers of classical music.
Songs such as “Black and Tan Fantasy” completely challenged what was then called “jungle music,” a negative term used to reference music inspired by the African diaspora. As a fusion of sacred and secular black culture, both the “Black and Tan Fantasy” composition and film combined the speaking traditions of black preachers with the humor and rhythms of black life.
This work shows his ability to infuse the blues into classical music and his commitment to tell the history of black America through song.
From the spirituals developed through the trials of slavery to the fight for civil rights and the modern rhythms of big band swing music, Ellington sought to tell a story about black life that was both beautiful and complex.
Read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and you’ll enter a world that’s white, poor and uncultured, with few, if any, people of color.
But as Black poets and scholars living in Appalachia, we know that this simplified portrayal obscures a world that is far more complex. It has always been a place filled with diverse inhabitants and endowed with a lush literary history. Black writers like Effie Waller Smith have been part of this cultural landscape as far back as the 19th century. Today, Black writers and poets continue to explore what it means to be Black and from Appalachia.
Swimming against cultural currents, they have long struggled to be heard. But a turning point took place 30 years ago, when Black Appalachian culture experienced a renaissance centered around a single word: “Affrilachia.”
Upending a ‘single story’ of Appalachia
In the 1960s, the Appalachian Regional Commission officially defined the Appalachian region as an area encompassing counties in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and the entirety of West Virginia. The designation brought national attention – and calls for economic equity – to an impoverished region that had largely been ignored.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “war on poverty” in 1964, it was with Appalachia in mind. However, as pernicious as the effects of poverty have been for white rural Appalachians, they’ve been worse for Black Appalachians, thanks to the long-term repercussions of slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial terrorism and a dearth of regional welfare programs.
Nonetheless, throughout the 20th century, Black Appalachian writers like Nikki Giovanni and Norman Jordan continued to write and wrestle with what it meant to be both Black and Appalachian.
In 1991, after a poetry reading that included Black poets from the Appalachian region, Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker decided to give a name to his experience as a Black Appalachian: “Affrilachian.” It subsequently became the title of a poetry collection he released in 2000.
By coining the terms “Affrilachia” and “Affrilachian,” Walker sought to upend assumptions about who is part of Appalachia. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken of the danger of the single story. When “one story becomes the only story,” she said in a 2009 TED Talk, “it robs people of dignity.”
Rather than accepting the single story of Appalachia as white and poor, Walker wrote a new one, forging a path for Black Appalachian artists.
It caught on.
In 2001, a number of Affrilachian poets – including Walker, Kelly Norman Ellis, Crystal Wilkinson, Ricardo Nazario y Colon, Gerald Coleman, Paul C. Taylor and Shanna Smith – were the subjects of the documentary “Coal Black Voices.” In 2007, the journal Pluck! was founded out of University of Kentucky with the goal of promoting a diverse range of Affrilachian writers at the national level. In 2016, the anthology “Black Bone: 25 Years of Affrilachian Poetry” was published.
Many Affrilachian poems explore this dynamic, along with the tension of participating in activities, such as hunting, that are stereotyped as being of interest only to white Americans. Food traditions, family and the Appalachian landscape are also central themes of the work.
Affrilachian poet Chanda Feldman’s poem “Rabbit” touches on all of these elements.
Her poem shifts from the speaker hunting for rabbits with their father to the hunt as a larger metaphor for being Black in Appalachia – and thus seen as both predator and prey:
He told me
of my great uncle who, Depression era,
loaned white townspeople venison
and preserves. Later stood off
the same ones with a gun
when they wanted his property.
An Affrilachian future
We reached out to Walker and asked him to reflect on the term, 30 years after he coined it.
Walker wrote back that it created a “solid foundation” that “encouraged a more diverse view of the region and its history” while increasing “opportunities for others to carve out their own space” – including other poets, musicians and visual artists of color throughout the region.
In her book “Sister Citizen,” journalist and academic Melissa Harris-Perry writes, “Citizens want and need more than a fair distribution of resources: they also desire meaningful recognition of their humanity and uniqueness.”
Affrilachian artistry and identity allows Appalachia to be fully seen as the diverse and culturally rich region that it is, bringing to the forefront those who have historically been pushed to the margins, out of mind and out of sight.
Four years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the novelist James Baldwin would write on the pages of Esquire magazine, “Since Martin’s death, in Memphis, and that tremendous day in Atlanta, something has altered in me, something has gone away.”
Baldwin wrote about how “the act of faith” – that is, his belief that the movement would change white Americans and ultimately America – maintained him through the years of the black freedom movement, through marches and petitions and torturous setbacks.
After King’s death, Baldwin found it hard to keep that faith.
Nearly two weeks after King’s funeral, in April of 1968, King’s confidant and former strategist Wyatt Tee Walker tried to renew this faith. Drawing on a tradition of black faith, Walker encouraged a grieving community to embrace hope even in the face of despair.
Black public faith has a storied place in American life.
The black church has been a place of fellowship and affirmation from colonial America to modern day, empowering individuals to undertake public acts to transform politics and society.
The 19th-century National Negro Convention movement, which ran from 1831 to 1864, demonstrated this black faith in action. Its leaders advocated for the abolition of slavery and full citizenship for African Americans. One activist reflected years later that the “colored conventions” were “almost as frequent as church meetings.”
These practices on Sunday morning, he noted served to “recharge the worshipers’ energy” so they could deal with the “rigors and racism of ‘a cruel, cruel world’ from Monday though Saturday.”
It was this faith that empowered many African Americans to maintain their faith in the possibilities of democracy while facing entrenched white opposition to their civil rights. Marches, sit-ins, demonstrations and mass meetings were all public displays of black faith.
Deftly navigating the tension between hope and despair, Walker based his message on the response of the Hebrew prophet Elisha in the Book of Kings who faced crisis and despair with an invading Syrian army, widespread famine and people ready to give up.
Drawing inspiration from the faith of the community, Elisha encouraged the community to keep faith in their nation.
Horizon of hope
Elisha’s example powered Walker’s message. At Princeton, Walker encouraged the black seminarians not to countenance a nostalgia for the past. In moments of deep discouragement, Walker said, distressed people tend to retreat into a romanticized past.
“In the jargon of the street,” Walker said, “it sounds like this: ‘Child, don’t you wish it was like it was back in the good old days… .”
“And yet,” he declared, “not by any wishing or hoping or praying or anything else can we find any day when things were better. There was no such day!”
Walker proceeded to caution his audience against maintaining the status quo. Walker proclaimed, “Whatever dream of life it is we envision for our children, ourselves, our community, our church, we will never bring it to our fingertips unless it begins first with some initial risk.”
For Walker, challenging the status quo was a fundamental aspect of existence.
“The elemental character of life is one that is moving and dynamic,” he said.
Walker closed his sermon by urging the audience to embrace hope-filled struggle. But he did not deny the desperate reality.
Instead, in the face of despair, he urged the young seminarians to take a risk of faith and build a future that has not been. For Walker, that meant “doing, trying, moving toward things which have never been tried before.”
Hope in democracy
The lasting testament of black public faith is its affirmation of new possibilities during moments of deep doubt. Rather than relying on a myth of the past or upholding the status quo, Walker offered the seminarians at Princeton a new vision of a political community.
“What I’m saying to you,” Walker declared, “is that I have the ultimate faith that we are going to find a tranquility with justice in this nation, in this world. We must! And it is conceivable it could happen in our time.”
All but two of them, one of whom was her mother, belonged to Black sororities. Harris also mentioned her own Black sorority, saying: “Family is my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha.”
Many Americans may have wondered why Harris would invoke sororities on such an occasion. But not me. Like her, I am a proud member of a Black sorority: Delta Sigma Theta, which I joined as a student at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. If I were in Harris’ shoes, accepting such an unprecedented leadership role, I, too, would have paid homage to my sorority as a way to thank those on whose shoulders I stand.
These clubs focused on issues of interest to all American women at the time, including education, health and voting rights. But they also sought to combat racism and discrimination.
A call toward service
Young Black women who liked the groups’ insistence on equality and racial justice responded by creating Black sororities at their colleges. Students at Howard University in Washington, D.C. – Harris’ alma mater – created the first one, Alpha Kappa Alpha, in 1908. Female white students by then had begun to form similar groups on other campuses, many of which barred Black members.
Five of the “Divine Nine” Greek organizations Kamala Harris mentioned in her speech are fraternities, created in response to Black men not being included in traditionally white fraternities.
I believe that African American women created their own sororities as communities of resistance that would allow them to survive and achieve in an oppressive society, refute stereotypes, celebrate their own cultures and fight sexism and racism – including gendered racism.
The 6 women Harris saluted
The historically significant Black women, aside from her mother, whom Harris thanked in her speech were:
Mary McLeod Bethune, who established what is today Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1904. She also became an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta in 1923, a dozen years before founding the National Council of Negro Women, an umbrella group that brought together representatives from different organizations seeking to improve the lives of Black women and their communities.
Diane Nash, who became a leader and strategist of the student wing of the civil rights movement while attending Howard and then Fisk University. I have found no evidence, however, that Nash belonged to a Black sorority.
Constance Baker Motley, who was the first African American woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court – winning nine of the 10 cases she argued before the court as an NAACP attorney. She was also the first Black woman to become a federal judge, the first to win a New York state senate seat and the first to represent Manhattan as the borough’s president. Alpha Kappa Alpha made her an honorary member.
But across the board, Black sororities emphasize consequential and sustained community service, while their members are students and also once they’ve graduated from college. This is also true of the few white women who have joined Black sororities over the years.
Like with biological families where members remain in the family no matter what, for Black women, sorority affiliation usually becomes a permanent part of their identity and an enduring source of pride and support.
Many members of Black sororities remain active and engaged for the rest of their lives. They join local chapters, changing their affiliation whenever they move. Through this practice, their bond of sisterhood remains intact.
When I moved to North Texas, for example, local sorority members reached out to me. They helped me acclimate and make connections so that I immediately felt welcome. I also remain engaged with the sorority chapter I joined at Longwood by mentoring students, donating to scholarship funds and through other means.
As Harris made clear in her speech, she believes she stands on the shoulders of phenomenal women who, years after they blazed trails, taught today’s Black women how to be persistent in creating change that benefits our communities, and how to teach others to follow in our footsteps.
Whether it’s black-and-white photos of Arkansas’ Little Rock Nine or Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of New Orleans schoolgirl Ruby Bridges, images of school desegregation often make it seem as though it was an issue for Black children primarily in the South.
It is true that Bridges, the Little Rock Nine and other brave students in Southern states, including North Carolina and Tennessee, changed the face of American education when they tested the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that mandated the desegregation of public education. But the struggle to desegregate America’s schools in the 1950s and ‘60s did not take place solely in the South. Black students and their parents also boldly challenged segregated schooling in the North.
Mae Mallory, a Harlem activist and mother, serves as an example. Her name may not be the first one that comes to mind when it comes to 1950s school desegregation battles. Yet Mallory made history – and changed the face of public education – when she filed the first post-Brown suit against the New York City Board of Education in 1957.
Prompted by her children
Mallory got involved in education activism after her children – Patricia and Keefer Jr. – told her about the deplorable conditions of their segregated school, P.S. 10 in Harlem. Mallory joined the Parents Committee for a Better Education and became a vocal advocate of Black children’s right to a safe learning environment.
The turning point came when she indicted the racist school system in her January 1957 testimony before the New York School Board’s Commission on Integration. Mallory embarrassed the board by remarking that P.S. 10 was “just as ‘Jim Crow’” as the Hazel Street School she had attended in Macon, Georgia, in the 1930s. Her testimony was an integral part of the parental complaints that forced the board to construct a new building and hire new teachers.
A larger battle
Encouraged by this victory, Mallory began a fight to end the New York City Board of Education’s segregation practices. Existing zoning maps required her daughter, Patricia, to attend a junior high school in Harlem. Mallory argued that this school was inferior to others in the area and would not adequately prepare her daughter for high school. Instead, she enrolled Patricia in a school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The board blocked Patricia’s enrollment. Mallory took action. With the help of a young Black lawyer, Paul Zuber, she sued, claiming existing zoning policies relegated her daughter – and other Black children – to segregated, inferior schools. Filed three years after Brown, Mallory’s suit forced the Board of Education to face the fact that segregation was a persistent problem in New York City public schools. Eight other mothers joined Mallory’s fight. The press dubbed them the “Harlem 9.”
Once filed, Mallory’s suit became front-page news in The New York Times. A year later, however, the case stalled. In an effort to spur the suit along, the Harlem 9 instituted a boycott of three Harlem junior high schools. Zuber knew that the mothers would face charges of violating compulsory school attendance laws. This, in turn, would force a judge to rule on their suit.
In December 1958, Judge Justine Polier sided with the Harlem 9, declaring: “These parents have the constitutionally guaranteed right to elect no education for their children rather than to subject them to discriminatory, inferior education.” The Harlem 9 gained the first legal victory proving that de facto segregation existed in Northern schools. The decision galvanized local Black parents, causing hundreds to request transfers for their children to better schools.
The parties reached a settlement in February 1959. The Harlem 9’s children would not enroll in the schools for which they were zoned. Nor would they be able to engage in “open choice” – the parents’ request to send their children to a school of their choosing.
Instead, they would attend a Harlem junior high school that offered more resources, including college prep courses, although it was still largely segregated. The Harlem 9 would be allowed to continue with their ultimately unsuccessful civil suit against the board. The mothers had also filed a million-dollar lawsuit seeking damages for the psychological and emotional toll their children endured in segregated schools. This was a compromise on all fronts. However, Mallory and the other mothers gained a substantial victory in forcing the court and the Board of Education to confront the segregation that existed in New York City public schools. Their boycott also became a unifying strategy for subsequent struggles, most notably for the 1964 New York City school boycott. During this boycott, hundreds of thousands of parents, students and activists engaged in a daylong protest of segregation and inequality in public city schools.
The Harlem 9’s fight serves as an important reminder that school desegregation protests were popular and successful in the North as well as in the South. It also provides insight into the prominent role Black women had in these struggles and the diverse range of strategies they deployed – from championing “open choice” to school boycotts – to help their children have access to equal education.
Even more importantly, perhaps, their fight demonstrates the importance of appreciating the different ways in which Black women compelled schools to make good on the Brown decision – a fight that, nearly 70 years later, is still being fought. The Supreme Court’s mandate in the Brown decision that public schools desegregate with “all deliberate speed” is unfinished. Nationwide, Black children remain in schools that are segregated, underfunded and overcrowded – much as they were when Mallory began her fight.