Black History Month - How I Learned Black History by Jack Coll
Black History Month
How I Learned Black History
I was Educated About Social Injustice Through the Music
By Jack Coll
February is Black History Month and has been designated throughout the country as a month to bring awareness to the history of African Americans. Many articles will be written and many programs viewed in an effort to bring Black History to the masses, particularly to our children so they have an understanding of not only African Americans but humans of all colors, where we came from, where we are, and where we’re going.
In my younger days they didn’t have a month set aside on the calendar to educate my generation on Black History, my education on the subject came from the radio and the music albums I purchased at local record stores. As most of us know the music of the sixties annoyed our parents, rarely would they stop to even listen to the lyrics, it wasn’t their music so therefor it wasn’t any good.
Bob Dylan was a huge influence in my young life, the very first album I ever purchased was a Bob Dylan album from W. T. Grants then located at the Valley Forge Shopping Center several years before it burned down. His music always had a message in it, sometimes you had to read between the lines, but his songs always had a message.
Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota in the spring of 1941, and turned to music at a very early age. His musical idol was Woody Guthrie, whose son is Arlo Guthrie. Dylan once wrote about Woody’s impact on his life, he wrote; “The songs themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them, he was the true voice of the American spirit. I said to myself I was going to be Woody’s greatest disciple.”
So Dylan set sail with his pen writing and singing songs pertaining to all kinds of social injustices and nothing was off limits in his songs. “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the song “Blowin’ In The Wind” partly derived its melody from the traditional slave song, “No More Auction Block” as lyrics questioned the social and political status quo.
He sang out against the Vietnam War in songs like “Chimes Of Freedom,”
“Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road to flight
An’ for each and ev’ry underdog soldier in the night
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”
Dylan sang about the stream of social consciousness and of nuclear disarmament, along with Joan Baez, Dylan sang at “The March on Washington” on August 8, 1963 where he stood side by side with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
Dylan sang a song called “The Times They Are a-Changin” and “I Want You” with political overtones.
In the early and mid 1960’s I didn’t get my equal rights education from the television set when blacks were being fire-hosed and killed down south, I got a real education from the songs of Bob Dylan.
Dylan wrote four songs that got my attention in the 1960’s including songs about Emmitt Till, James Meredith, Hattie Carroll and Medgar Evers. These songs taught me a lot, it taught me that at that time in our Nation’s history that the very people who were supposed to be looking out for us, and serving the people were an absolute disgrace including Senators, Governors and Congressman.
James Howard Meredith was a civil rights pioneer, in 1962 he became the first African-American student admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi. A black man trying to enroll in an all-white university down South in 1962 was as close to committing suicide as one could imagine.
Meredith was born in 1933 in Kosciusko, Mississippi and as a child Meredith attended local schools (which were segregated as “white” and “colored” under the state’s Jim Crow laws). Following graduation from high school Meredith enlisted in the United States Air Force. He served from 1951 to 1960. After retiring from the Air Force Meredith attended Jackson State University for two years (Jackson State was an all-black school) achieving good grades.
Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, Meredith decided to exercise his constitutional rights and apply to the University of Mississippi located in the small town of Oxford. His goal was to put pressure on the Kennedy administration to enforce civil rights for African Americans. The University of Mississippi at that time still admitted only white students under the state’s culture of racial segregation, although the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, as they were all supported by all the taxpayers.
Meredith was twice denied admission, on May 31, 1961, Meredith, with the backing of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, (NAACP) filed suit in the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, alleging that the university had rejected him only because of his race. (Medgar Evers advised Meredith, Evers was the head of the state chapter of the NAACP at that time) The case went through many hearings, after which the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Meredith had the right to be admitted to the state school. The state appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court, which supported the ruling of the appeals court.
On September 13, 1962, the District Court entered an injunction directing the members of the Board of Trustees and officials of the University to register Meredith. The Democratic Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, declared “No school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your governor.” The state legislature quickly passed a law that denied admission to any person “who has a crime of moral turpitude against him” or who had been convicted of any felony offense or not pardoned. The law was directed at Meredith. Who was accused and convicted of “false voter registration” in Jackson County.
On September 20, 1962, the federal government gained an enjoinment against enforcement of this act and of the two state court decrees that had barred Meredith’s registration. That day Meredith was rebuffed again by Governor Barnett in his efforts to gain admission, through university officials were prepared to admit him. On September 28, the Court of Appeals during a hearing found the Governor in civil contempt and ordered that he be arrested and pay a fine of $10,000 each day that he kept up the refusal, unless complied by October 2. On September 29, Lieutenant Governor Johnson was found in contempt by a panel of the court, and a similar order was entered against him.
The United states Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had a series of phone calls with Governor Barnett and Barnett reluctantly agreed to let Meredith enroll in the university, but secretly bargained with Kennedy on a plan which would allow him to save face.
Attorney General Kennedy ordered 500 United States Marshalls to accompany Meredith during his arrival and registration. Kennedy sent a stern message to anyone and everyone engaged in the obstruction of the laws and orders of the courts to cease and desist or he will use militia or the armed forces to suppress any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy.
On the evening of September 29, after State Senator George Yarbrough withdrew the State Highway Police, a riot broke out. Whites opposing integration had been gathering at the campus. Despite the Kennedy administration’s reluctance to use force, it ordered the nationalized Mississippi National Guard and federal troops to the campus. In the violent clashes which followed, two men were killed by gunshot wounds and hundreds were wounded, and the white mob burned cars, pelted federal marshals with rocks, bricks and small arms of fire, and damaged university property.
The next day on October 1, 1962, after troops took control of the campus, James Meredith became the first African-American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Meredith’s admission is regarded as a pivotal moment in the history of civil rights in the United States. He persisted through harassment and extreme isolation to graduate on August 18, 1963, with a degree in political science.
In 1966 Meredith planned a solo 220-mile March Against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson Mississippi, he wanted to highlight continuing racism in the South and encouraged voter registration after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He did not want any major civil rights organizations involved. The second day, he was shot by a white gunman and suffered numerous wounds.
While Meredith recovered from his wounds in the hospital more people from across the country joined the march. When Meredith rejoined the march on June 26, an estimated 15,000 marchers had taken up the cause of voter registration in Mississippi. During the course of it 4,000 African Americans had registered to vote.
Just months after Meredith was admitted to the University of Mississippi, Bob Dylan wrote a song called “Oxford Town” which appears on his 1963 album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” The song doesn’t mention the university or Meredith’s name but the lyrics are strong. Dylan records the historical moment focusing on race and violence. Dylan opens the song with the terse invocation of shame: “Oxford Town, Oxford Town—Every body’s got their head down,” and continues to chronicle the events of the October in Oxford.
Dylan implies the lasting implication of events surrounding Meredith’s attendance at the University of Mississippi and the continued presence of strife and struggle regarding issues of equality in our country.
I remembering listening to the “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album, I was young and didn’t know exactly what the hell he was singing about, I didn’t know where Oxford Town was but I knew I should never go there.
By Bob Dylan
Oxford town, Oxford town
Everybody’s got their heads bowed down
Sun don’t shine above the ground
Ain’t a-goin’ down to Oxford town
He went down to Oxford town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town
Oxford town around the bend
Come to the door, he couldn’t get in
All because of the color of his skin
What do you think about that, my friend?
Me, my gal, and my gal’s son
We got met with a tear gas bomb
Don’t even know why we come
We’re goin’ back where we come from
Oxford town in the afternoon
Everybody’s singin’ a sorrowful tune
Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon
Somebody better investigate soon
ABOUT BOB DYLAN
Dylan has sold more than 100 million records over the years making him one of the best-selling artists of all times. He received eleven Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, and an Academy Award.
Dylan has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Pulitzer Prize jury in 2008 awarded him a special citation for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”
In May 2012, Dylan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. In 2016, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Throughout the 1960’s when “white people” turned their heads and didn’t want to talk about the social and racial injustices, and black people couldn’t talk about it in fear for their lives, Dylan wrote and sang about it for all the world to hear.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Wikpedia was used to gather information on James Meredith and in some cases was quoted word-for-word.
NEXT WEEK, The sad, sad story of Hattie Carroll, Dylan wrote a masterpiece.