Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Dr. King and Mavis Staples- keep on fighting

On a holiday, I usually just sleep late and quickly forget the reason that I have a day off from work. But since I'd recently visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which had previously been the place where he'd been killed and since I'd long admired him, I thought that I should do something to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, especially since it involved one of my favorite singers.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music was holding its 22nd annual tribute to Dr. King and while I was glad to be there, even on a freezing cold morning, I was kind of disappointed to see that I was one of the few white people who came out there for the show (a freebee no less). Regardless, it was a nice testament to Dr. King in many ways as his beautiful visage stood on a screen at the back of the stage, with his soulful eyes looking skyward.

As a musical prelude, a small house band played an appropriate instrumental version of "What's Going On" before a choir got the crowd on its feet with the national anthem (sadly, not the Hendrix or Radiohead version) and the more-than-appropriate "Lift Every Voice" ("sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us").

After the BAM leaders greeted everyone, Yvonne Graham, Deputy Borough President of Brooklyn, said for the first but not even close to the last time that day that there was unfinished work that had to be carried out in King's name, including poverty, housing, education and over-crowded jails.

This was followed by Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn Borough President, who talked about how ethnic diversity is the strength of this city and this nation. Later, he spoke of how MLK faced death bravely and then he then honored Obama for winning a caucus in a mostly white state (Iowa) and honored the passing of a number of African Americans last year including drummer Max Roach and pianist Oscar Peterson. He also toasted several successful local black businessmen in the audience, asking them to stand for applause before noting that next year we'll finally be rid of Bush (which got huge applause) and that a new day will dawn for government then (or so we all hope, right?). He even got in some praise for Oprah for having a positive effect on the political race along with an anti-gun screed.

Next up was William Rhoden, the New York Times sports writer, who noted that the sports industry has been able to make a lot of money for African American athletes but given them little power in the end. He also fretted about when kids ask him who the first white players were that integrated basketball and football as they obviously didn't know about integration or history. He wound down by speaking movingly of King's promise that "we" will reach the promised land, meaning all people of all races would get there together.

Mayor Michael "I'm not running for Prez" Bloomberg then gave a kind of tepid speech, not really worthy of someone who supposedly is thinking of seeking high office. After calling Staples "Marvis" and demanding some enthused applause for her, he joked that it was better that she was singing today instead of him. He spoke of how King still inspires young people and how he'd already been to three events today to honor King. Today was a day of optimism, he said. Later, he invoked King's Memphis speech ("I've been to the mountaintop...") and how MLK had brushed aside warnings of threats against his life just so he could do what's right. Bloomy took time to pat himself on the back for making city agencies more reflective of the community (i.e. more racially diverse) and how there was still unfinished business of Dr. King's to fulfill, including giving opportunities to young men and funding or defunding programs if they were or weren't working.

Senator Chuck Schumer did much better as he tagged himself as a Brooklyn native who plays basketball and gave a shout out to his old local school. On King, he told how he admired his courage and strength. "King help up mirror to America... made progress but still have a long way to go..." He quoted Alexis de Tocqueville, saying that the only thing that can prevent America from greatness is racism. Schumer said that some people in the civil rights movement had told King to slow down with his work. King's response was a letter from a Birmingham jail, which he rightfully noted was an historic document : "For years now, I have heard the word 'wait'... This 'wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'" As Schumer gave an impassioned reading, he occasionally betraying his Brooklyn accent. Ending on an upbeat note, he told that although in many cities, half of all black men never finish college, Strive is a good program to counter that.

New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn then addressed the crowd, saying that today gives you a moment to stop and reflect on the progress and the work we still have to do. there's been a 20% increase in hate crimes and that strikes at the core of what Dr. King wanted. We will not tolerate hate! As a sad reminder of how far we still have to go a woman heckler in the audience yelled at her three times: "The only hate crime is between you and Viola Plummer." This was a not-so-King-like greeting to the first openly gay elected speaker. In response, I wanted to remind the infantile jackass in the audience that the person we were there to honor would have been sickened by her incredible ignorance but luckily the crowd cheering Quinn drowned out the pathetic moron. King would have approved of that for sure.

Next came the keynote interview with Dr. Edison O. Jackson, President Medgar Evers College who was there to speak to the musical star of the show, Mavis Staples., an appropriate choice since she and her family were tight with King back in the day and also since she just released a great album of civil rights songs, We'll Never Turn Back (on Anti-). King's visage was taken off the back screen and we saw a collage of historical photos of Mavis and her family, the Staples Singers. Mavis appeared, saying that she was delighted that someone had left a present in her dressing room of a book of writings of MLK.

Q: Could you tell the story of what inspired the Staples to move from gospel to pop?

Mavis: It was 1963 and we were in Montgomery, Alabama and Pops said 'Martin Luther King is here and I want to go to his service and I'd like you to join me' So we always followed Pop and we went. During the service, Dr. King acknowledged him and after the service, they met and spoke briefly. Pops came back to us later and said 'I like his message. If he can preach it, we can sing it.' And so we came up with "March of Freedom Highway."

Q: Did he have a favorite song of yours?

Mavis: He liked "Why Am I Treated So Bad." Pops wrote it about the nine black children in Little Rock who were trying to integrate the school there and they had to get through these angry crowds and police. That made Pops wonder 'what did they do to deserve this?'

Q: Why did you decide to return to songs of protest?

Mavis: Our generation doesn't sing these songs... (but) they're just as relevant and needed today. What would Dr. King say about Katrina? He'd probably feel like it's 1960 again... That's why this generation needs to know what we went through. If it's just me keeping on, then I'll be there.

Q: What kind of effect did you think these freedom songs would have?

Mavis: We hoped these songs could change the world, make it a better place, inspire our people not to give up. Sometimes people want to hear a song, not a speech! (applause)

Staples then left briefly before coming back out with the house band. From her new album, she sang "On My Way" accompanied only by a guitar for a spacey blues song. Even with her raspy voice, she was still a true diva. "Sing it girl!" someone yelled from the audience as a spontaneous clap-a-long began. That Mavis did as she shouted the lyrics towards the end before humming the melody to bring it home. She then did "Waiting For My Child to Come Home" (an old Staples Singers song) again with just her and the guitarist. For her last song, the choir reappeared for "I'll Take You There"with the whole band playing with her now as the crowd was pumped up, clapping along for a beautiful, rousing version of the song. Mavis goaded each band member to solo then got the crowd to sing the chorus before leaving.

It was a tough act to follow. Congresswoman Yvette Clarke noted that she was literally able to be here today because of King and his work. He was a warrior, she insisted. At the time of his struggle, white folks had a psychosis, a schizophrenia that they hadn't shaken off. "We have to teach our kids about our history," she also insisted. "Being absorbed by a culture that continues to subjugate you isn't part of the dream. " Finally bringing up the current election and a viable black candidate who was campaigning in the south, she noted the problems that still persist there. "If the confederate flag is flying in South Carolina, then it's flying in Brooklyn too."

Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes was up next, noting that the Reentry program which led to less kids (specifically African American) going back to prison before reading a long portion of King's Memphis speech.

To deliver a benediction (making it much like a church service) was Reverend Robert M. Waterman of the Antioch Baptist Church. "This is the part where everyone wants to leave," he jokingly noted as several people walked out. Later, he said "I keep coming back to what Dr. King's said about 'the bad check'" (from his "I Have a Dream" speech: "America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds'"). Waterman told how he was stopped by cops recently in his own neighborhood as they demanded identification from him. "Living in Brooklyn," he told the crowd, "some of you still got bad checks- health care, jail, unemployment... And remember that even if you make it, don't forget that many of your brothers and sisters still suffer." He also took an admirable swipe at the Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program without mentioning it by name, noting that "test taking is not learning!" (to which the audience applauded in agreement). He asked us to all held hands for a prayer as I clutched an elderly black woman next to me. He asked God for tolerance, love and patience but also that we speak out against injustice.

The choir came back to sign "We Shall Overcome," as we all soon stood and sang along with them. "Deep in my heart/I do believe/We shall overcome some day." It was a beautiful, moving moment and a great way to end the tribute.

Afterwards, I stood in line for a CD signing by Mavis. As I came up to her and she signed a booklet for my girlfriend, I asked her "What's the most important thing you learned from Dr. King?" Without missing a beat, she said "to keep on fighting." Perfect answer. She laughed at me then and said "You wanna interview me, right?" I smiled back and said "Thanks Mavis, I just did."


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