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Racial segregation was extremely common in the first half of the twentieth century. During the 1940s segregation was enforced by law. The Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution states that everyone should have equal rights, but the meaning could have been taken many ways. Until fairly recently in U.S. history, it was assumed that equal rights could be established through equal, yet segregated facilities, for both races. In fact, “colored” facilities were clearly lacking the same quality of those for whites, and they were not considered “inherently unequal until 1954” (“How Were Racial…”).
It has been said that the Civil Rights movement started around 1954 and lasted until 1968, but I would argue that it began in the 1940s, and it is still continuing today. It was kicked off with World War II. The country needed more workers and more soldiers, and had to call upon African Americans and other minorities in order to fulfil the nation’s needs. As African Americans took on a much larger role in society, their music affected the Civil Rights movement drastically.
Billie Holiday was one of the most important figures in the world of jazz. In 1949 she incorporated a haunting song into her routine performance called Strange Fruit. The song was originally a poem written by a high school teacher called Abel Meeropol, who was the adoptive father of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s two sons. Even in the first verse of the song, the metaphor becomes apparent:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
(“Billie Holiday – …”)
Meeropol was known as a poet and a social activist outside his teaching career (Blair). In 1930, he saw a photograph in the local newspaper of two young black men being lynched. Their names were Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, and their story inspired the writing of the eerie poem. He then contacted Billie Holiday, who agreed to perform it. She debuted the song at Cafe Society, New York City’s first integrated nightclub. Because Holiday’s audience was so large, the song became known immediately. This sparked an intense dispute among both black and white people. “The ’60s hadn’t happened yet … Things like that weren’t talked about. They certainly weren’t sung about” (Blair). The song triggered lots of controversy, especially among white people with their conflicting opinions of the song. Articles were published shaming Holiday and the people who were touched by her song.
Benny Goodman was the first white jazz musician to hire colored artists as band members. In 1935, he hired pianist Teddy Wilson for his trio, and later he added Lionel Hampton on the vibraphone, and Gene Krupa as a drummer. “These steps helped push for racial integration in jazz, which was previously not only a taboo, but even illegal in some states,” (Teichroew). Goodman later created the radio show Let’s Dance where he bought and broadcasted pieces which were composed by black composers, like Fletcher Henderson, and were performed by black musicians. This made African American influenced jazz available to a wide Caucasian audience.
Another jazz musician who contributed to the Civil Rights movement was Louis Armstrong. For most of his career Armstrong was quiet about his political opinions, that is, until the Little Rock Nine crisis. The Little Rock Nine crisis was a failed attempt to integrate nine black students into Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas until President Eisenhower was forced to order federal troops to enforce the Supreme Court’s integration order (“Little Rock Nine”). In an interview with Larry Lubenow on September 17, two weeks after the incident, Armstrong said “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” (Antos). It is widely believed that the Little Rock Nine led him to cancel an upcoming tour to the Soviet Union. The reaction to his interview was dramatic. In many places, for example Hattiesburg, Mississippi, radio stations threw away his records and vowed never to play them again. Multiple boycotts were called on his performances, and sponsors threatened to discontinue their support. Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Marian Anderson all publicly supported Armstrong (Antos). When Armstrong sang his song Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen on TV in 1963, it sparked controversy all over the country.
While jazz musicians played a large part in the Civil Rights movement, there were musicians of all genres involved in the revolution, for example, Marian Anderson, an opera singer. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) rejected a request for Anderson to sing in front of an integrated audience in Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. However, with approval and support from President Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson was permitted to give an open-air concert on Easter, April 9, 1939. Close to 75,000 people attended the concert, both black and white, as well as millions more listening by radio (“Marian Anderson”). Also, on January 7, 1955, Anderson was the first black artist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Anderson also sang at the March on Washington in 1963.
Anderson impacted the fight for racial equality not only musically but also politically. Anderson served as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee as well as a “goodwill ambassadress” for the United States Department of State. She was honored with many awards throughout her life. “The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Anderson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the National Medal of Arts in 1986, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991,” (“Marian Anderson”).
Music, and especially jazz, an essentially black art form, had thus become a vehicle for helping to combat racial segregation in the United States. By bringing together whites and blacks in a common appreciation of music, politics were changed and eventually racial segregation came to an end.
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