In the late fifties and throughout the sixties the political landscape was experiencing tectonic upheavals. The Vietnam War was polarizing the country, the sexual revolution was introducing a new morality and the experimentation with illegal drugs was addicting a generation. The entire country was shifting under the enormous pressures of social change. But perhaps no other issue in that day created more instability than that of the civil rights movement. Sometimes revolutionary change is the only way to right wrongs and establish the righteousness of a nation.
Parallel Factors Were in Play
There were three major constructs that became the foundation for the new society: the marches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball and the music of Motown. Actually, President Johnson called it the Great Society, as congress enacted legislation targeting the elimination of poverty and prejudice. The undergirding issue was equality for all Americans.
Dr. King’s ministry and mission was summed up in his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, which became the bellwether statement of the generations. But the speech sometimes unintentionally dwarfs the sweat equity of the thousands of participants in the marches that took place throughout the south confronting the blatant prejudice of the nation. But the political landscape in and of itself was not the only force for change in America. Discretionary time was spent on things other than politics. The real change-makers of the day were sports and music. And I don’t think it marginalizes Dr. King’s influence in the events of the day, on the contrary I think they undergird him.
Winning was the Impetus of Change
Back in the fifties Major League Baseball in America was the national pastime. No NFL or NHL to speak of really existed in scope and popularity. In the baseball movie “42,” Dodger organizational manager, Branch Rickey is portrayed as somewhat of a religious man with a degree of moral fortitude, a rare characteristic in the cut-throat days of competitive baseball. But his good-natured disposition wasn’t the catalyst that resulted in the acquisition of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American in Major League baseball. In point of fact, sports writer Wendell Smith suggested that Rickey contract Robinson to bolster the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. The Dodgers wanted to win. It was as simple as that. And Jackie had significant skill sets and talent to make it happen. But breaking the race barrier was no small challenge; the ultimate understatement of the day.
Perhaps one of the unlikeliest of Jackie’s allies was Dodgers Coach Leo Durocher- certainly no saint and no political progressive. In his legendary middle of the night speech to his players, laced with profanities and vulgar locker room language, Leo defended Jackie as a starter. It changed the locker room environment with most of Jackie’s teammates; however, Jackie continued to suffer humiliation and mocking from other players, fans and segregationists. But his trials opened the door for other African -American baseball players and gave them an opportunity to demonstrate equal athletic prowess. I grew up in Chicago and I can safely say that no player in the history of the Chicago Cubs organization was more beloved, whatever their ethnicity, than Ernie Banks and, perhaps a close second, Billy Williams. They were Wrigley Field heroes. They were winners! When I was a young baseball player, I played center field and always tried to imitate the over the shoulder catch of the great Giants outfielder, Willy Mays. He, along with Ernie and Billy, were in my baseball card collection with many other African American baseball players. If they were in minted condition today, they would generate thousands of dollars in single card sales.
The Detroit Sound of Motown
The first African American musician I heard on my transistor radio was Chuck Berry. He wasn’t a Motown artist, but a precursor to it. In my neighborhood everybody had several of his hits on 45 rpm records (that had the jukebox hole in the center). Such classics as: Maybellene, Rollover Beethoven, Johnnie B. Goode and Rock & Roll Music. My father was a bit of a racist and a devoted Elvis Presley fan. No one could usurp the “king.” But my mom loved Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker and Little Richard despite the disparaging labels from my older family members. But these musicians were the forerunners. They laid the ground work for the unique sound of Motown.
I can’t underscore enough my love for the music of Motown. It wasn’t just me, it was everyone I knew in my high school. Motown music was all over the radio stations in Chicago. You could sing with it. You could dance to it. You could play it in public and it was really appreciated. My first real musical craze was Little Stevie Wonder, a blind singer who played the harmonica and keyboards. He completely stole the hearts of American teenagers and began the meltdown of prejudice among European American culture. Then came the iconic songs of Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Jackson Five, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations and Marvin Gaye. There are just too many to mention. African-American music was completely main stream by the late 60’s. The baby boomer generation throughout most of the country was very accepting. But not everyone was ready for this “great society”. On April 4, 1968 in the early evening, Dr. King was assassinated in a motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Every state in the union celebrates the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the third Monday in January as a paid federal holiday. So, when you hear the replay of Dr. King’s iconic speech, perhaps you’ll hear the baseball crowd roaring in approval and the music of Motown playing in the background. The three, in harmony, in concert with one another, changed America.