How Jazz Helped Fuel the 1960s Civil Rights Movement

Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em shoot us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em stab us!
Oh, Lord, don’t let ‘em tar and feath­er us!
Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

—Charles Min­gus, “Fables of Faubus”

In 1957, Arkansas Gov­er­nor Orval Faubus decid­ed that integration—mandated three years ear­li­er by Brown v. Board of Ed.—constituted such a state of emer­gency that he mobi­lized the Nation­al Guard to pre­vent nine black stu­dents from going to school. An out­raged Charles Min­gus respond­ed with the lyrics to “Fables of Faubus,” a com­po­si­tion that first appeared on his cel­e­brat­ed Min­gus Ah Um in 1959.

Those who know the album may be puzzled—there are no lyrics on that record­ing. Colum­bia Records, notes Michael Ver­i­ty, found them “so incen­di­ary that they refused to allow them to be record­ed.” Min­gus re-record­ed the song the fol­low­ing year for Can­did Records, “lyrics and all, on Charles Min­gus Presents Charles Min­gus.” The iras­ci­ble bassist and bandleader’s words “offer some of the most bla­tant and harsh­est cri­tiques of Jim Crow atti­tudes in all of jazz activism.”

Min­gus’ expe­ri­ence with Colum­bia shows the line most jazz artists had to walk in the ear­ly years of the Civ­il Rights move­ment. Sev­er­al of Min­gus’ elders, like Louis Arm­strong and Duke Elling­ton, refrained from mak­ing pub­lic state­ments about racial injus­tice, for which they were lat­er harsh­ly crit­i­cized.

But between Min­gus’ two ver­sions of “Fables of Faubus,” jazz rad­i­cal­ly broke with old­er tra­di­tions that catered to and depend­ed on white audi­ences. “’If you don’t like it, don’t lis­ten,’ was the atti­tude,” as Amiri Bara­ka wrote in 1962.

Musi­cians turned inward: they played for each oth­er and for their com­mu­ni­ties, invent­ed new lan­guages to con­found jazz appro­pri­a­tors and car­ry the music for­ward on its own terms. Can­did Records own­er Nat Hentoff, long­time Vil­lage Voice jazz crit­ic and colum­nist, not only issued Min­gus’ vocal Faubus protest, but also that same year Max Roach’s We Insist! Free­dom Now Suite, which fea­tured a cov­er pho­to of a lunch counter protest and per­for­mances from his then-wife, singer and activist Abbey Lin­coln.

Roach record­ed two oth­er albums with promi­nent Civ­il Rights themes, Speak Broth­er Speak in 1962 and Lift Every Voice and Sing in 1971. Jazz’s turn toward the move­ment was in full swing as the 60s dawned. “Nina Simone sang the incen­di­ary ‘Mis­sis­sip­pi God­dam,’” writes KCRW’s Tom Schn­abel, “Coltrane per­formed a sad dirge, ‘Alaba­ma’ to mourn the Birm­ing­ham, Alaba­ma church bomb­ing in 1963. Son­ny Rollins record­ed The Free­dom Suite for River­side Records as a dec­la­ra­tion of musi­cal and racial free­dom.”

Every Civ­il Rights gen­er­a­tion up to the present has had its songs of sor­row, anger, and cel­e­bra­tion. Where gospel guid­ed the ear­ly marchers, jazz musi­cians of the 1960s took it upon them­selves to score the move­ment. Though he didn’t much like to talk about it in inter­views, “Coltrane was deeply involved in the civ­il rights move­ment,” writes Blank on Blank, “and shared many of Mal­colm X’s views on black con­scious­ness and Pan-African­ism, which he incor­po­rat­ed into his music.”

Jazz clubs even became spaces for orga­niz­ing:

In 1963, CORE—Congress of Racial Equality—organized two ben­e­fit shows at the Five Spot Café, [fea­tur­ing] a host of promi­nent musi­cians and music jour­nal­ists.

In the wake of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech at the March on Wash­ing­ton and with the church bomb­ing in Birm­ing­ham that killed 4 lit­tle girls only the month before, the ben­e­fit attract­ed a host of musi­cians like Ben Web­ster, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims in sup­port of the orga­ni­za­tion, which, along with the NAACP and SNCC, was one of the lead­ing civ­il rights groups at the time.

The new jazz, hot or cool, became more deeply expres­sive of musi­cians’ indi­vid­ual per­son­al­i­ties, and thus of their whole polit­i­cal, social, and spir­i­tu­al selves. This was no small thing; jazz may have been an Amer­i­can inven­tion, but it was an inter­na­tion­al phe­nom­e­non. Artists in the 60s car­ried the strug­gle abroad with music and activism. After a wave of bru­tal bomb­ings, mur­ders, and beat­ings, “there were no more side­lines,” writes Ashawn­ta Jack­son at JSTOR Dai­ly. “Jazz musi­cians, like any oth­er Amer­i­can, had the duty to speak to the world around them.” And the world lis­tened.

The first Berlin Jazz Fes­ti­val, held in 1964, was intro­duced with an address by Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. (who did not attend in per­son). “Jazz is export­ed to the world,” King wrote, and “much of the pow­er of our Free­dom Move­ment in the Unit­ed States has come from this music. It has strength­ened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich har­monies when spir­its were down.” Music still plays the same role in today’s strug­gles. It’s a dif­fer­ent sound now, but you’ll still hear Min­gus’ vers­es in the streets, against more waves of hatred and brute force:

Boo! Nazi Fas­cist suprema­cists
Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Coltrane Talks About the Sacred Mean­ing of Music in the Human Expe­ri­ence: Lis­ten to One of His Final Inter­views (1966)

Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Explains the Impor­tance of Jazz: Hear the Speech He Gave at the First Berlin Jazz Fes­ti­val (1964)

Nina Simone’s Live Per­for­mances of Her Poignant Civ­il Rights Protest Songs

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • alan fair says:

    Jazz has long been an expres­sion of free­dom both aes­thet­i­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly and it is no dif­fer­ent now. Lis­ten to the music of Moor Moth­er and Damon Locks in the U.S. and Maisha, Shaba­ka & The Ances­tors in the many, many more. The very foun­da­tion of jazz was a protest and has remained so. I’m not sure you are right about Arm­strong and Elling­ton. Arm­strong was always out­spo­ken about racism in Amer­i­ca and the Duke’s work is tes­ta­ment to his polit­i­cal out­rage at racism and his cel­e­bra­tion of black­ness.

  • Walter Hayley says:

    I real­ize there is inevitably going to be omis­sions, but sure­ly Archie Shepp should have drawn men­tion…

  • Craig pointes says:

    If you don’t shout your thoughts out you get left out. Say the word be hes­rd. You deserve that. If they do not want to lis­ten, turn off the tunes. We win you lose. The sound is the word.

  • Tom Reney says:

    Louis Arm­strong made a bold, unequiv­o­cal state­ment of con­dem­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Eisen­how­er for his reluc­tance to send fed­er­al troops to Lit­tle Rock in 1957. Arm­strong’s threat to can­cel his good­will tour of the Sovi­et Union made head­lines across the globe, and earned the trum­peter crit­i­cism in the press and else­where.

    Duke Elling­ton com­posed “King Fit the Bat­tle of Alabam” in 1963, the same year that he intro­duced his musi­cal “My Peo­ple.” It’s true that he was crit­i­cized for not being more out­spo­ken on behalf of the Move­ment, but his trib­ute to Dr. King was one of numer­ous works he wrote that under­scored his career-long cel­e­bra­tion of African Amer­i­can his­to­ry and cul­ture.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Thank you for these cor­rec­tions, Tom. Both did speak out lat­er in their careers.

  • Darwin Allisany says:

    It’s also worth men­tion­ing Duke Elling­ton’s refusal to wear black face, and his musi­cal released n 1941, “Jump for Joy.” It was out­spo­ken about issues of racial vio­lence and injus­tice and fea­tured an all-black cast with­out any black-face, most­ly unheard of at the time.

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