Soundtrack for a Revolution

Soundtrack for a Revolution

Directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman (2009)

This week Māori TV showed the extraordinary documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution about the 1960s civil rights movement. The premise of the film is that black protestors who demonstrated nonviolently to end segregation and win voting rights knew they were risking their lives – but the enduring power of their protest songs gave them the courage to do so.

The film retells the story of the southern civil rights struggle, starting with the with Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and ending with Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. It combines great footage of mass meetings and protests, Martin Luther King speeches, commentary by former movement participants and leaders and major protest songs staged in a variety of settings (churches, concerts, mass meetings, etc). It even features a clip from a 1950s propaganda film explaining why Mississippi’s large number (greater than 50%) of Negroes in Mississippi made segregation essential to keep white people safe.

Prior to seeing this documentary, I was unaware of the major economic impact the civil rights movement had on the South. The Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted nearly a year, almost bankrupted the bus company. Likewise Woolworth’s took a major financial hit during the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins (1960). Because black customers occupied all the seats and Woolworth’s refused to serve them, their lunch counters in no revenue for weeks.

The film finishes with a moving tribute to the dozens of civil rights workers murdered by white vigilante violence in most cases anonymously as southern law enforcement – most were never investigated by law enforcement personnel implicated in the killings) during the 13 year struggle.

The film is available at the Māori TV website for the next two weeks: Soundtrack to a Revolution

Sharecropping: The Hidden History

and-their-children

And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – James, Agee, Walker Evans and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South

By Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson

Random House (1990)

Book Review

This book is meant as a sequel to James Agee’s 1941 classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In the original, Agee and Evans documented – though photos and biographical narrative – the profound poverty of white and black sharecroppers in the Cotton Belt. The sequel also provides historical background about the invention of the Cotton Gin* in 1794,  which first made cotton a viable crop in the southern US, and of cotton picking machines, gradually introduced in the 1950s, which ultimately put nine million sharecroppers out of work.

Between 1985-88, Maharidge and Williams revisited the same families that Agee and Evans had interviewed, compiling a coherent account of significant life events befalling children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original subjects. Sacramento Bee journalist Dale Marahidge, also provides a detailed analysis of various sharecropping schemes that were deliberately designed set up to keep families in debt. Typically the landlord advanced credit, based on a crop-lien agreement, and charged so high interest (as much as 200%) that families became virtual slaves when they couldn’t pay it. The end result was excruciating poverty, extreme malnutrition and chronic illnesses associated with malnutrition (mainly hookworm and pellagra**).

Despite contributing approximately one billion annually to the global economy, most tenant cotton farmers ended up owing money to the landlord. Maharidge maintains that without slavery and the sharecropping system that replaced it, there would have been no way the South could have produced cotton economically.

The book finishes by exploring develops that would end cotton cultivation in the Cotton Belt. In addition to the total mechanization of cotton farming that occurred after World War II, Maharidge blames the invention of and other synthetics, competition with other countries for cotton export markets and depletion of Cotton Belt soil due to the slash and burn mentality of large landholders.

At present, nearly all US cotton cultivation occurs in Texas and California and is totally mechanized. White tenant farmers displaced by the death of King Cotton could find work in southern factories that sprang up in the fifties and sixties. Owing to racial discrimination they faced from factory owners, former black tenant farmers mainly migrated to northern cities. Many, however, failed to find work, even after five years and longer.

Maharidge subscribes to the role played by massive unemployment of former black sharecroppers in triggering the early sixties civil rights movement.


*The cotton gin is a machine that quickly and easily separates cotton fibers from their seeds, allowing for much greater productivity than manual cotton separation.

**Hookworm is an intestinal parasite and pellagra is a deficiency disease stemming from absence of Vitamin B3 in the diet.

How Prostitutes and Ex-Slaves Saved Us from the Protestant Work Ethic

a renegade history

A Renegade History of the United States

by Thaddeus Russell

2010 Free Press

Book Review

I absolutely adored A Renegade History of the United States. Historian Thadeus Russell offers a totally unique but compelling perspective on the expansion of personal liberty in the US and other English speaking countries.

Unlike Zinn’s The People’s History of the United states and similar “working class” histories, Russell argues that that most of the person freedoms we enjoy aren’t the result of political movements. In his view they originated from the refusal of renegades, degenerates and discontents to accept the puritanical work ethic the founding fathers tried to foist on us. In other words, we should thank America’s drunkards, prostitutes, pirates, slackers, “shiftless” slaves and juvenile delinquents for the unprecedented levels of personal freedom Americans enjoy.

Parts of Russell’s book really surprised me, especially where he describes the uptight, repressed social conservatives (including Martin Luther King) who led American campaigns for abolition, women’s suffrage, labor rights and civil rights. Despite their high profile campaigns for specific legal “rights,” the leaders of these movements expended enormous time and energy trying to correct the “inappropriate” behavior of the masses they claimed to represent.

The Role of Prostitutes and Ex-Slaves

The unquestioned heroes of A Renegade History of the United States are prostitutes and ex-slaves. In the 19th century the only women who owned property, had sex outside of marriage, performed or received oral sex, used birth control, wore make-up, perfume or stylish clothes were prostitutes. In fact, it was prostitutes who won these and other rights that modern American women take for granted. When women were barred from most jobs and wives had no legal right to own property, prostitutes, especially in the Wild West became so wealthy that they funded crucial irrigation and road building projects. Likewise when most states banned birth control in the early 1800s, prostitutes continued to provide a market for contraceptives that stimulated production and distribution.

The importance of slaves and their descendents in the expansion of personal freedom relates to the tenacious manner in which they preserved a culture characterized by sensuous music, rhythms and dancing in a culture that condemned these activities as depraved and harmful to the work ethic.

Following the Civil War, there was a strong expectation that slaves would renounce these pleasurable pastimes and embrace the work ethic as good American citizens. Many eagerly embraced the discipline and self-denial emancipation demanded of them. Most didn’t.

In 1865 Congress confronted this dilemma by creating the Freedman’s Bureau to train ex-slaves how to become “good citizens.” Most enrolled eagerly, thinking they would be taught to read and write. Instead the classes focused on the ideals the founding fathers had promoted – frugality, self-denial and most importantly a love of work, even poorly paid work, as a source of virtue.

Russell cites letters and interviews with ex-slaves who saw no point in being free if it meant they had to work harder than a slave did. Many northerners, who acquired southern plantations cheaply during Reconstruction, complained that ex-slaves made terrible workers. Not only did they come and go as they pleased, but they demanded days off and refused to work in inclement weather. Many ex-slaves also resisted pressure to adopt legal norms of marriage.

Martin Luther King’s Campaign Against Un-Christian and Un-American Blacks

For me, the most interesting section of A Renegade History of the United States is the chapter about Martin Luther King and his little known campaign to persuade so-called “bad niggers” to embrace the puritan work ethic and cult of responsibility and sexless self-sacrifice that has characterized the dominant American culture.

In 1957, Reverend King launched three projects simultaneously: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to coordinate a nonviolent campaign to desegregate buses across the South, the Campaign for Citizenship to campaign for voting rights and a church-based campaign to rid African Americans of what King referred to as “un-Christian” and “un-American” habits. In 1957 he delivered a series of sermons condemning blacks who led “tragic lives of pleasure and riotous living” (see Problems of Personality Integration).

In 1958 he wrote articles in Ebony and published his first book, Stride Towards Freedom, in which he claimed black poverty was as much due to laziness and a lack of discipline and morality, as to institutional racism. He also condemned rock and roll.

The Role of Violence in the Civil Rights Movement

Russell also weighs in on what “diversity of tactics” debate that ultimately split the Occupy movement. He lays out compelling evidence that 1) only a tiny minority of southern blacks participated in King’s nonviolent movement and 2) it was “bad niggers” and violence, rather than King’s nonviolent campaign, that won the first major civil rights victories in 1963.