In the first two decades of the 20th Century, segregation by race was a common practice. In the 1940s racial segregation became a law. The Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution asserts that all people should have the same rights. However, the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment could have taken on many forms. Up until relatively recent U.S. historical times, equal rights were assumed to be possible through segregated but equal facilities. It was not until 1954 that “colored” buildings were considered to be “inherently unfair” because they lacked quality.
The Civil Rights Movement is said to have started in 1954 and continued until 1968. I believe it began much earlier and continues today. World War II was the catalyst for this movement. It was necessary to recruit more workers, more soldiers and to call on African Americans to fill the needs of the country. African Americans played a greater role in the society and their music had a significant impact on Civil Rights.
Billie Holiday has been a key figure in the jazz world. Strange Fruit was a song she included in her 1949 routine. The song, originally a piece of poetry written by Abel Meeropol (a high-school teacher) who was the adopted father of Julius Rosenberg & Ethel Rosenberg s two boys. In the very first verse, the metaphor is clear:
Southern trees have a peculiar fruit
Blood on leaves and at the roots
Black bodies swaying in the Southern wind
Strange fruits hanging off poplar trees
(“Billie Holiday – …”)
Meeropol, aside from his career as a teacher, was also known for being a poet and social activist (Blair). He saw in 1930 a photo of two young African-American men being lynched. Thomas Shipp and Abram Smit were the names of these two men, and the story behind their lynching inspired him to pen the haunting poem. Billie Holiday agreed to sing it. She premiered the song at Cafe Society in New York City, which was New York’s first mixed-race nightclub. Holiday’s large audience made the song instantly popular. Both blacks and whites were enraged by the song. “The ’60s had not yet happened… Things like this weren’t discussed. They weren’t really sung (Blair). This song sparked controversy among white people, who held opposing views about it. Holiday was made to look bad in the media, along with those touched by Holiday’s song.
Benny Goodman hired the first colored jazz musicians to form his band. He added Lionel Hampton to his vibraphone in 1935 and Gene Krupa to his drums. “These measures helped push racial equality in jazz. This was previously not just taboo, it was illegal in some States,” (Teichroew). Goodman went on to create the radio program Let’s Dance in which he broadcasted music composed by black artists, such as Fletcher Henderson. This allowed a broad Caucasian population to enjoy African American-influenced jazz.
Louis Armstrong was another jazz musician who made a contribution to the Civil rights movement. Armstrong was a quiet politician for the majority of his career. That is, until Little Rock Nine. Little Rock Nine crisis: A failed attempt at integrating nine black students in Little Rock Central high school, Arkansas. It was only after President Eisenhower’s orders that federal troops enforce Supreme Court integration order (Little Rock Nine) did President Eisenhower finally order federal soldiers to enforce it. Armstrong said in an August 17 interview, two weeks before the incident that “It was almost as if a colored boy didn’t have any country” (Antos). According to popular belief, the Little Rock Nine was the reason he cancelled a planned Soviet Union tour. His interview was met with a dramatic reaction. Radio stations, such as Hattiesburg radio station in Mississippi, have pledged to never play his records again. Sponsors threatened discontinuing their support, and there were multiple boycotts against his performances. Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson and Lena Horne publicly supported Armstrong. Armstrong’s 1963 TV performance of Nobody Knows The Problem I’ve Been sparked controversy throughout the country.
Marian Anderson is an opera singer. The Daughters of the American Revolution rejected Anderson’s request to perform in Washington D.C. Constitution Hall before an integrated audience. Anderson’s Easter concert was allowed to go ahead, however, thanks to the support and approval of President Roosevelt and First lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The concert was attended by 75,000 black and white people, plus millions of others who listened on radio (“Marian Anderson”) Anderson became the first African-American artist to perform in New York City’s Metropolitan Opera (January 7, 1955). Anderson sang also at the March of Washington in 1963.
Anderson had a profound impact not only on the music scene but also on politics. Anderson was both a United Nations Human Rights Committee delegate and “goodwill Ambassador” for the United States Department of State. She received numerous awards during her lifetime. Anderson received many honors throughout her life. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963), Kennedy Center Honors (1978), National Medal of Arts (1996), and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1991).
The United States had benefited from the use of music, particularly jazz, a form essentially black. The common appreciation of jazz by whites and African-Americans changed the politics and led to the end of racial discrimination.