Episode 28: That Memphis Sound

 

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Otis Redding. Booker T and the M.G.s. Eddie Floyd. Isaac Hayes. The Staples Sisters. What do all of these classic soul and R&B artists have in common? Stax Records. As he toured the history of the Civil Rights Movement this summer, host John Fea included a stop at the Stax Museum (@StaxMemphis) in Memphis, Tennessee. Eager to relive the experience and share such attractions as a floor-to-ceiling record room and Isaac Hayes’s gold-plated Cadillac, Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling are joined by the museum’s executive director, Jeff Kollath. They discuss the importance of that “Memphis Sound” for the city as well as creating a “usable past” with popular music history.

Our First Summer “Patrons-Only” Episode is Here

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Todd Allen

If you are a patron of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, you have heard from producer Drew Dylri Hermeling this morning about how to access our first patrons-only summer mini-episode.

Our guest on the episode is Todd Allen, the new assistant Special Assistant to the President and Provost for Diversity Affairs at Messiah College.  Todd is a scholar of the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement and wrote his doctoral dissertation on museum interpretations of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965.

For more than a decade Todd has led “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Bus Tour,” a premier Civil Rights bus tour that takes participants to nearly every major historical site associated with the Movement.  Stops on the tour include Greensboro, NC; Atlanta, GA; Albany, GA; Montgomery, AL; Birmingham, AL; Memphis, TN; and Nashville, TN.  The tour combines historical site and museum visits with lectures, conversations with major Civil Rights Movement veterans, and documentary films.  I took the tour in June 2017 and wrote about it here.

In this episode, Todd talks about the origins of the tour, Civil Rights Movement tourism, his building of relationships with the veterans of the Movement, and a whole lot more.

We are thrilled to share this special episode with our patrons and send it along to all future patrons as well.  Please consider becoming a patron by visiting our Patreon page and making a pledge.

Hofstadter: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”

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With Freedom Rider Rip Patton in Nashville

Over at The New Republic, Jeet Heer reminds us that “America Has Always Been Angry and Violent.”  He offers this history lesson in the wake of the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others in Alexandria, Virginia last week.

Here is a taste:

The notion that Americans are particularly angry today has become a rote talking point in the political press, repeated year after year. In 2011, after Representative Gabby Giffords was shot by a mentally ill man, NBC’s Mark Murray wrote, “If one word summed up the past two years in American politics, it was this: anger.” In 2007, George Will wrote in The Washington Post, “Americans are infatuated with anger.” In 1996, in her book The Angry American, George Washington University political scientist Susan Tolchin described an epidemic of “voter rage.”

But long before any of these writers, amid Barry Goldwater’s demogogic presidential campaign, the great historian Richard Hofstadter began his classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” thus: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers… But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Hofstadter was exactly right—not only about the anger in the mid-’60s, but also that it was “far from new.” We are not, as Podhoretz and Pelosi suggest, living in a especially or uniquely dangerous moment. Incendiary political speech and political violence have been pervasive in U.S. history.

“What is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history, its persistence into very recent and contemporary times, and its rather abrupt contrast without our pretensions to singular national virtue,” Hofstadter wrote in the introduction to American Violence: A Documentary History, the 1972 collection he co-edited with Michael Wallace. It shouldn’t surprise us that a colonial settler society that wiped out the Native American population, imported slave labor, and relied on vigilante violence to police newly incorporated territories should be prone to political violence. Reading through Hofstadter and Wallace’s book, one is reminded anew that American history has consisted of slave revolts and their violent crushing, race riots, labor clashes, and assassinations.

Read the entire piece here.

I first read Heet’s piece while traveling throughout the South on a Civil Rights bus tour where we learned a great deal about Martin Luther King’s theory of non-violence from several veterans of the movement who tried to order their lives around this principle. During a conversation with Freedom Rider Rip Patton in the Nashville Public Library, one of the participants on our tour asked Patton how to introduce the principles of non-violence to the students she teaches.  This participant, obviously moved by what she had heard and seen all week, prefaced her remarks by saying that she was convinced that King’s philosophy of non-violence best represented the teachings of Jesus Christ.

I am not a pacifist, but I was also struck by the non-violent philosophy of the leaders and activists of the Civil Rights Movement. I often wrote about it in my daily posts.  As Rip Patton spoke that day he referenced several passages from the Bible.  One of those passages was Romans 12:2:  “And do not be conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”  Rip said that this verse was one of several Bible passages that motivated him to join the movement as a college student.

Romans 12:2 is one of the most counter-cultural verses in the New Testament.  I got the sense that the verse had layered meanings for Rip.  First, the “world” was no doubt the world of white supremacy that he had lived through in segregated Nashville.  He would no longer allow himself to be “conformed” to this unjust world.  This required action on his part.

But I also think Rip would say that the “world” of Romans 12:2 was defined by violence and anger.  As a Christian he could not “conform” to this world.  He would pursue a course of counter-cultural transformation–a path that was good and acceptable and the perfect will of God.  This course was defined by non-violence.

Heet and Hofstadter are correct.  American history has always been characterized by violence.  But it seems that the God of the early Civil Rights movement was calling its participants to something higher.

As I wrote this post I also thought about Martha Nussbaum’s recent National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture on the limits of anger as a political and social emotion.  Here are some of my tweets from that lecture:

Nussbaum: The ancient Greek democracy had an anger problem. Just like modern democracies. #JeffLec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: Ancients raged a “cultural struggle” against anger, seeing it as destructive to democratic institutions. #jefflec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: We should resist anger in our political culture. This is not easy. Many feel anger is needed for justice. #JeffLec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: “Killing the killer does not restore the dead to life. Pain for pain is an easy idea, but it is a false lure. #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: We go wrong when we permit retributive thoughts to convince us that inflicting pain in the present corrects the past. #jefflec17

Nussbaum: Hard to get our head around complicated truths. Easier to incinerate the witch. #JeffLec17 #humanities #anger

Nussbaum: Fear feeds payback. Obliterating wrong-doers makes us feel better. Even just wars decline into payback & bloodthirst. #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: King gets busy turning retributive anger into work and and hope. #jefflec17 #humanities #mlk #anger

Nussbaum: Democracy must give up empty & destructive thought of payback. Move toward a future of regal justice & human well-being #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: Malcolm X was wrong to criticize King’s rejection of retribution. #Mlk #JeffLec17 #humanities #MLK

Nussbaum: Retributive desires are like the wild beasts in writings of Lucretiius. Anger is powerful, but always gets out of hand. #jefflec17

Nussbaum: History teaches that we always destroy ourselves when we allow ourselves to be governed by fear and anger. #JeffLec17#humanities

 

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 9

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For previous posts in this series click here.

We began Day 9 in Middletown, Ohio and ended it back in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.   It was an amazing trip and I was blessed to have experienced it with my wife Joy and my youngest daughter Caroline.  We spent a lot of time in the car on the drive home to the Harrisburg area discussing all that we learned.

Thanks to Todd Allen and the staff of Common Ground Project for all of their work in making this tour a success.  I am also happy to report that Messiah College will be the new base of operation for the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour.  Todd will be joining us in the Fall as a professor in the Department of Communications and special assistant to the president for diversity affairs.

Our only stop on Day 9 was the historic Clearview Golf Club in Canton, Ohio.  The golf course was designed and constructed in 1946 by William “Bill” Powell. When Powell returned to Minerva, Ohio after serving in the Air Force during World War II he was banned from all-white golf courses and could not obtain a bank loan to build his own course.  (Powell learned the game as a boy from working at a golf club in Canton. He went on to captain the golf team at Wilberforce University).  He eventually found two doctors willing to help him buy a piece of farmland in East Canton and went to work on building Clearview Golf Club.  He worked on the course during the day and, in order so support his family, worked as a security guard from 3-11pm.  In 1948 Clearview opened as an integrated course–the only course in the United States designed, constructed, owned, and operated by an African American.  Here is a USGA video on Powell and Clearview:

Our host at Clearview was Powell’s daughter Renee Powell, the club professional.  Renee spent thirteen years (1967-1980) on the LPGA tour and was the second black golfer to play on the tour. (Althea Gibson was the first).  Since then she has been an ambassador for golf around the world.

Here are some more pics:

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with Renee Powell at Clearview Golf Club

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Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 8

For previous posts in this series click here.

Last night the bus pulled into the Drury Inn in Middletown, Ohio.  We have officially left the South, but it also feels like we have traveled forward in time.  Eight days ago we entered the world of the Civil Rights Movement in the years between 1954 and 1968. Time travel, of course, is impossible, but this week we have come as close as possible to the kind of historical empathy I demand of all of my students.  The world we entered eight days ago was a world of segregation, Jim Crow, and brutal violence against African Americans.  It was also a world of hope, resistance, non-violence, and Christian faith.

Yesterday afternoon our tour leaders popped Raoul Peck’s powerful James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro into the bus DVD player.  As I listened and watched I was keenly aware of the distance between the movement in Greensboro, Selma, Montgomery, Albany, and Birmingham and the more radical civil rights voices of the latter and post-King years. In some cases nonviolence  gave way to violence; hope gave way to bitterness; and Christian faith gave way to skepticism.  Historians can debate the degree to which these changes took place, but they definitely took place.  Baldwin complicates the narrative in ways that make white people uncomfortable.

On Saturday we spent most of the day in Nashville, Tennessee.  When white Americans think about Nashville they think about country music, but the Civil Rights Movement has a very rich history in the Music City.

We began the day at the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library—the only place in the city where the Civil Rights Movement is interpreted.  When we walked into this amazing room we met Rip Patton, a Nashville resident who participated in the city’s lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides during the Winter and Spring of 1960.  Patton walked us through the history of the movement as he experienced it.  He was involved in integrating lunch counters throughout the city and was jailed as part of the second wave of freedom riders in May 1960.  Here is Patton on The Oprah Winfrey Show:

The Civil Rights Movement in Nashville was split evenly between white and black activists.  The African-American part of the movement was led by a group of students and ministers associated with American Baptist Theological Seminary. As Patton described how James Lawson, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel ended up in Nashville he spoke in terms that could only be described as providential. These men came to Nashville, with a recommendation from Martin Luther King, to train for the Christian ministry.  Patton continued his providential language when he described how Diane Nash left Howard University after her freshman year and came to Fisk University.

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With Rip Patton at the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room

Training in non-violent resistance began in Nashville in 1959. Since the movement was led by clergymen and clergymen-in-training, it took on a spiritual character.  Patton said that the students were trained to ask “what would Jesus do?” when faced with difficult choices.  During severe moments of violence and discrimination they were taught to “remove” themselves from the situation through prayer and singing. Patton’s Civil Rights Movement was a spiritual movement, affirming the argument made by historian David Chappell in his excellent Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Since so many ministers were in jail during the Freedom Rides, Patton said, “we always had church.”  He added, “We read the Bible a lot and prayed.” Patton appealed to three Bible verses to explain why he participated in the movement.  They were Romans 12:2 (“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind…); Isaiah 6:8 (“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”); and Psalm 23.

After Patton spoke and answered questions, Kwame Lillard, another Nashville participant in the movement, led us on a walking tour of Civil Rights sites in Nashville. Lillard trained students in non-violent methods of protest and handled much of the administrative tasks for the sit-ins and freedom rides.  In recent years he has served as a Nashville city councilman.

Lillard’s civil rights journey was a little different than the one experienced by his friend Rip Patton.  Lillard was more open about discussing structural racism, telling us several times that “We took down the ‘white only sign,’ but we didn’t take down the ‘white only mind.'”  He was more willing to talk about violence and describe the battle for civil rights as a  “war.”  (At Fisk University, Lillard spoke somewhat approvingly of an incident in which African-American students dragged a member of the white administration down the stairs in order to remove him from power and secure African-American leadership at the university.  I have been trying to find this story online, but have come-up empty so far.  If anyone can point me to a source I would appreciate it).  Lillard was the first person we met on this tour to talk extensively about Black Lives Matter and mention Malcolm X.

At lunch I invited Lillard to sit with my family in a booth at Swetts, one of Nashville’s great soul food restaurants and a place often frequented by those in the movement.  Here I got to learn more about his story.  After playing his pivotal role in the Nashville movement in 1959-1960, Lillard moved to New York City to pursue graduate work at Hunter College.  While in New York he was influenced by the militant teachings of Malcolm X.  He described the shift from the non-violent approach of the Nashville movement to the more militant approach of Malcolm X as “difficult,” but he appreciated Malcolm X’s efforts at connecting his vision to similar fights for racial justice around the world.  “I learned a lot,” Lillard told me, “and realized that there was a lot going on in Africa and other places.”  Lillard even had a chance to meet Malcolm X at his New York apartment.  Though he did not say it, I imagine that Lillard returned to Nashville in the mid-1970s with a different take on how to deal with race issues in the city. It was fascinating to listen to him describe his intellectual journey.

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With Kwame Lillard at Swetts in Nashville.  He held up his fist for the picture and said “Mandela.”

During our tour Lillard took us to the Walgreen’s Drug Store on 5th Avenue North.  It was the site of student sit-ins in 1960 and is the oldest Walgreen’s store still operating in its original location.  (The lunch counter was removed).  We also visited Fisk University and Nashville National Cemetery where we saw the grave markers of the “colored troops” who fought for the Union at the Civil War Battle of Nashville.  On our final stop, Lillard took us to meet Vernon Winfrey at the barber shop he has owned for over fifty years.  Oh yeah, did I mention Vernon is Oprah’s father?

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Kwame Lillard telling us about the Nashville Walgreens sit-in

As the tour winds down I am left wondering again about usable pasts. Using the past to promote present-day agendas is always problematic, but I wonder if the Civil Rights Movement of Juanita Jones Abernathy, Rutha Mae Harris, Carol McKinstry, and Rip Patton provide the best way forward.  Or does a more militant and radical approach, like the one associated with Malcolm X, James Baldwin, or Kwame Lillard offer the best way forward as we seek to foster racial reconciliation in our communities. Perhaps a little bit of both.

As I have written before, I am taking this tour with several colleagues from Messiah College.  The Provost’s Office and Office of Diversity Affairs funded our trip as part of the college’s commitment to racial reconciliation.  At various points during the trip we were asked to appear on camera and reflect on “what we were feeling” or “describe our emotions.” The assumption, of course, is that we will be moved to make contributions to race relations on our campus.

I am not a big fan of expressing my feelings or talking about emotions as it relates to the way I approach the past, but I think it is fair to say that I am leaving this trip inspired by the Christian and non-violent approach to Civil Rights promoted by Martin Luther King, James Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, the Greensboro Four, and many, many others.  As some you know, Messiah College is a Christian college with Anabaptist roots.  Like Rip Patton, we try to approach social issues from the perspective of Christian faith.  As an Anabaptist school we privilege non-violence.  Frankly, I can’t think of a more usable past than the one provided for us by these Civil Rights leaders.  So I continue to wonder: is there is a place for a religiously skeptical, militant, and angry approach to race relations at a Christian college?  Something to think about.  I need to keep reading,

Today is our last stop.  It is in Canton, Ohio.  Stay tuned.  Here are a couple more pics:

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Another shot of the Nashville Walgreens

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When we got to Fisk University, Phyllis Brown (pictured above) told us all to kneel down and touch the “sacred ground.”  Phyllis traveled with us from Memphis to Nashville.  She is the sister of  Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

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Vernon Winfrey shares some words of wisdom with us from the floor of his barber shop in Nashville.

Memphis Cotton for Bibles

Cotton Museum

Next time I am Memphis I am going to try to visit the Cotton Museum

Earlier today I wrote about my recent visit to Memphis as part of a Civil Rights bus tour I am currently taking.  We visited sites from The Civil Rights Movement and the African American history of the city in the 1960s.

In the 19th century, Memphis was a major cotton market and, consequently, a major slave market.  This was largely due to its prime location on the Mississippi River.

The prevalence of cotton in Memphis even crossed over into the work of Bible distribution.  In my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I wrote a few sentences about the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society and the spread of cheap Bibles into the South during the Civil War:

One of the most interesting parts of the American Bible Society (ABS) distribution efforts [during the Civil War] was the sale of Bibles in exchange for cotton.  Since the Union would not accept Confederate currency as a form of donation or payment for Bibles, the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society in Tennessee circumvented this problem by offering the ABS bales of cotton.  Cotton was purchased by southern philanthropists and friends of the Bible Cause with Confederate money, and the bales were shipped out to New York.  In February 1865, an anonymous donor gave the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society six bales of cotton to help defer the cost of electrotype plates used to print Bibles at the Society’s distribution depot in Nashville.  Whatever was left after the plates were paid for was used to provide boxes of Bibles and Testaments for Confederate troops.

Similarly, the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society Society received a request from Monticello, Arkansas, proposing to exchange ten bales of cotton for Bibles and Testaments that would be distributed to citizens and soldiers in the surrounding region. The Memphis and Shelby County Society planned to have the cotton shipped directly to the [New York City] Bible House as soon as possible….The ABS was not prepared to receive cotton in exchange for copies of the scriptures, but the New York Board of Managers were more than willing to accept it if it meant getting Bibles past Confederate military lines.

Transporting cotton through a country torn by Civil War was difficult. The Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society needed the permission of Confederate authorities and generals. The ABS had to obtain special approval from the U.S. Treasury Department.  In some cases the cotton, once received in New York, was deposited in a U.S. government warehouse “to the credit of the American Bible Society for special purposes.”

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 7

Memphis

For previous posts in this series click here.

I cannot believe we have been on the road for a week.  We started the day in Memphis and ended it in Nashville.

The major stop of the day was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. The Lorraine Motel, of course, was the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.  The museum is built around the motel and an additional building–the Young and Morrow Building–located just across the street.  This is the building (a rooming house in 1968) where James Earl Ray fired the shots that killed King.

Here is New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s famous speech on the evening of King’s death. He delivered it while on the presidential campaign trail in Indianapolis.

Kennedy would be assassinated two months later.  As I listen to his speech again, I wonder if it still holds-up today.  I hope it does.

After touring the museum we headed to Beale Street and a visit to the gallery of Civil Rights Movement photographer Ernest Withers.  He took some of the most iconic photos of the era.  You can see some of my favorites here and here.

The last stop in Memphis was lunch at B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale Street where we were treated to some great soul music from recent graduates of Stax Music Academy.

We are touring Nashville today.  Stay tuned.