Quotes from “Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield” by Todd Mayfield and Travis Atria

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From the brand-new book “Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield” by Todd Mayfield (and Travis Atria) on his father, Curtis Mayfield, here are some quotes that I’ve collected, that in an enlightening way show the disparate racistic climate that continued sprawling throughout the USA during the 1950s and 1960s. The book’s a winner. The below are cuts from throughout the first half of the book. A more coherent excerpt can be found here.

I love the quotes from Muhammad Ali and Huey Newton below. Giants.

At the time of the Impressions’ visit, Jamaica suffered under a racist system similar to America’s, and the island’s own civil rights movement had just begun burgeoning. As my father watched his Caribbean brothers struggle, it reignited his passion to write songs that spoke to the times. He dipped back to his days listening to Annie Bell’s sermons, pondering the power of the church while watching his country change around him. Across the South, movement activists continued to die grisly deaths. Closer to Curtis’s home, comedian and activist Dick Gregory led protest marches through Mayor Daley’s segregated neighborhood in Chicago. Martin Luther King Jr. was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize—he’d already been Time magazine’s Man of the Year for 1963—and Congress seemed tantalizingly close to passing the Civil Rights Act. Meanwhile, great antagonism electrified the gap between militants like Malcolm X and moderates like King. My father revered King and believed Negroes couldn’t let these divisions stop their momentum. With all that in mind, he started scribbling lyrics and fitting them to a melody. He finished the song in a hotel room on tour. Around two in the morning, Fred heard a gentle knock on his door. He cracked it open and squinted into the hallway light. He could just make out my father standing there in his pajamas.

“Hey man, come and listen to this and see what you think of it,” my father said. “I wrote something that maybe can help motivate the people.”

Cradling his guitar at the edge of his bed, he played “Keep On Pushing” for the first time. When he finished, Fred stood dumbstruck.

“Where did you come up with all these words?” he finally asked.

My father replied, “I’m living.”

“People Get Ready” plays like a meditation, a hymn, a love letter to the fathomless strength and endless struggle of Negroes in America. It opens with a haunting, hummed melody that sends chills up the spine. Johnny’s arrangement is masterful—pizzicato strings and lilting violin lines weaving around plinking chimes. Once Curtis begins singing, it is clear he’d found a way to merge the movement’s vast hope with the fierce sadness and pain Negroes experienced trying to make that hope a reality. My father intended “People Get Ready” to reach far back in history, even as it kept an eye on the future. His lyrics brought the coded messages of old Negro spirituals into the turbulent ’60s. When he sang about a train to Jordan, everyone fighting for their rights in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia knew what he meant. Everyone who had migrated to Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and California knew it too.

The summer of 1967 laid bare the chasm between white and black America. For white people, it was the Summer of Love—bellbottoms, acid rock, free love, and flower power. For blacks, it was a summer of agony. White people turned on, tuned in, and dropped out as the Beatles sang “All You Need Is Love” on the first live, international satellite broadcast in history. Black people had nowhere to turn, little to tune into, and nothing to drop out of; they’d never been included in the first place. White people protested the war in Vietnam. Black people fought wars in their own neighborhoods. Riots tore apart ghettos in Newark, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Birmingham, New York City, Rochester, Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Tampa. By the end of the summer, 159 riots had broken out all over America. The seeds for the summers of rioting had been planted decades before, back when Annie Bell first came to Chicago and Negroes were shunted into stifling ghettos. Making matters worse, the rate of black unemployment was twice that of whites. These problems went untouched by the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, or anything King had done in the South. Negroes in northern ghettos were like teakettles over a fire, and by 1967, nothing could stop them from boiling over.

Stokely Carmichael said, “Now that they’ve taken Dr. King off, it’s time to end this nonviolence bullshit,” but after the past three summers of riots, no one in the ghetto needed instructions on what to do. They razed Baltimore, DC, Louisville, Kansas City, and Wilmington, Delaware. They also set buildings ablaze in Cabrini-Green and Lawndale.

As Dad cut the new Impressions album, one of the most infamous moments in American political history unfolded just a few miles away. On August 28, 1968, ten thousand protesters held a rally outside the Democratic National Convention in Grant Park. A disturbance erupted when a young boy lowered the American flag and cops began beating him. The crowd retaliated, hurling rocks and chunks of concrete at the cops while chanting, “Pigs are whores.” The cops doused the crowd with noxious billows of tear gas, and when it was over, a huge tear-gas cloud crept down the street to the Hilton Hotel, where it reportedly disturbed Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the shower. For seventeen minutes, live television broadcasted the whole gory thing. The protestors shouted, “The whole world is watching.”

As the Impressions toured to support the album, the movement entered its final phase as the forces for and against it moved further toward their respective fringes. Nixon was the emblem of conservative white America, which wanted to take back as much ground in the name of traditional values as possible. Upon assuming the Oval Office, Nixon slowed federal spending for the advancement of black people and poor whites, saying in his first State of the Union address, “It is time for those who make massive demands on society to make minimal demands on themselves.” He tried to placate alienated whites by nominating southern conservatives for the US Supreme Court and keeping black congressmen waiting months for a reply to their requests for an audience.

Even the Viet Cong exploited American racism. At least one sign posted in Vietnam read, “U.S. Negro armymen! You are committing the same ignominious crimes in South Vietnam that the KKK clique is perpetuating against your family at home.” Perhaps no one summed up the situation better than Muhammad Ali, who put an exclamation mark on the black resistance to the draft when he issued his heartfelt but incendiary reason for his refusal. In an often misquoted statement, he said, “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father…. Shoot them for what? … How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.” My father noticed all these developments. He and Ali were friends—my mother remembers the bombastic boxer visiting them at home—and Uncle Kenny still fought the war Ali resisted. Dad had never written an antiwar song before, and he wasn’t ready to yet. The idea germinated in his mind, though. Perhaps he wanted to wait until his brother came home.

Chicago, 1970—The decade dawned under dark clouds. Nixon, swept into office with promises of a return to law and order and an end to the Vietnam War, delivered neither. The year turned foul almost immediately. In February, the Weathermen hurled Molotov cocktails all over New York, the Black Liberation Army allegedly bombed a police station in San Francicso, and racists in Colorado bombed school buses that were being used to desegregate a Denver school. Three months later, race riots broke out in Georgia, the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State, and police killed two students during an antiwar rally at historically black Jackson State College in Mississippi. In the music world, Motown’s Tammi Terrell died of brain cancer in March, the Beatles disbanded in April, and Diana Ross released her first album without the Supremes in May. Meanwhile, boys in body bags came home in heaps as the death toll in Vietnam mounted.

In April, as Dad performed with B. B. King and the Last Poets, the film world went through a major shift with Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the first so-called blaxploitation film. Blaxploitation movies were the first in Hollywood history made almost entirely by black people. They depicted gripping tales of inner-city life that either glorified drugs and violence or simply showed the world the reality of the ghetto, depending on one’s politics. Sweetback launched a movement and spoke to black people in a way no movie had before. As actor John Amos said, “[Melvin] went out and made a movie that generated so much revenue against the production dollar spent that it literally made the industry sit up overnight and say, ‘My God, there’s an audience of black people out there that will pay to see movies about black people.’ Now, how they managed to overlook that for all the years since the inception of the business remains to be explained.”

Blaxploitation movies served another important psychological function. They were the first to feature black actors—mostly men—as heroes, central characters, and eventual victors. This marked a major shift. As Huey Newton wrote, “As I suffered through Sambo and the Black Tar Baby story in Brer Rabbit in the early grades, a great weight began to settle on me. It was the weight of ignorance and inferiority imposed by the system. I found myself wanting to identify with the white heroes … and in time I cringed at the mention of Black.” Newton noted that this “gulf of hostility” led to the surge of anger and militancy that had taken over the movement. “We not only accepted ourselves as inferior; we accepted the inferiority as inevitable and inescapable … Rebellion was the only way we knew to cope with the suffocating, repressive atmosphere that undermined our confidence.” That rebellion was at the heart of the blaxploitation genre. Music was also a major part of that shift.

A month after Sweetback, Marvin Gaye dropped his seminal album, What’s Going On, which invented the format of concept-album-as-social-commentary. It one-upped even Curtis in terms of straight truth. My father had never done anything like it, and he knew it. “When I first heard What’s Going On I felt like Marvin had said everything there was to be said,” he said. “The album had such qualities and the timely release was perfect. The clarity with which he expressed himself left you wondering whether there was anything left to write about; it seemed to me that he really had said it all.” Of course, there was plenty left to say.

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