When Martin Luther King, standing on a platform, addressing an off-stage white society, says, “You don’t have to love me to quit lynching me,” he is disinfecting his doctrine of agape from sentimentality–from the notion of easy solutions by easy love.
–Robert Penn Warren,
“Who Speaks for the Negro?” (1965)
As Trent Lott struggled to “repudiate” segregation fifty years after it was outlawed, about the only point he left out of his incoherent counterattack is that he was a soul-music fan. Now, I don’t know that he was, but as a Southern frat boy, he would have been ironically typical of the initial audiences for Stax Records, the Memphis-based label whose music, along with Motown’s, helped transport cultural integration to a broader plain. Good ol’ boys who wouldn’t eat with “the colored” steadfastly booked fledgling Southern soul acts year after year, providing steady income and a tour circuit before singers like Carla Thomas and Otis Redding burst into America’s mainstream.
For burst they did, in that era of hope and recovery, of reopening possibilities after the McCarthyite witch hunts and hysteria had narrowed options in the American mainstream. By 1965, the year after the first landmark Civil Rights Act, when optimism seemed to permeate the economy, the culture, the scent of the air–when the false dawns and cataclysms forming on the distant horizon, presaging the long twilight of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, were still fist-sized bad dreams–Motown, a black-owned independent record label rocketing from outsider to insider status, was already a top-of-the-pops (read, white crossover) hit-making factory. In the mid-1960s, it suddenly seemed that black Americans owned the top of the pop charts, breaking out of their racial enclave of rhythm and blues. In August 1964 “Where Did Our Love Go,” cooing, lightweight pop by the Supremes, elbowed Dean Martin out of Billboard‘s No. 1 American slot. Just as suddenly, it seemed, black entertainers zoomed from occasional to continual sightings on TV, especially teen-oriented music programs like Hullabaloo and Shindig, and those hosted by Dick Clark and Les Cole.
Over the next couple of years, in a trend started by the British Invasion bands, black singers’ hits, from “What’d I Say” and “Do You Love Me” to “Respect” and “In the Midnight Hour,” became a core part of the shared language of largely white garage bands across the land. For a few years there, it seemed like Dr. King’s dreams were being enacted in the arena of popular culture. As historian Peter Guralnick writes in Sweet Soul Music, “It was as if the rhythm and blues singer, like the jazz musician and professional athlete before him, were being sent out as an advance scout into hostile territory.” It looked like the civil rights movement–which had always deployed the church music that gave birth to soul for its uplifting anthems and rallying cries; whose leaders, from King to Malcolm X, moved masses with the same churchy cadences that soul singers finessed–might infuse a new generation via the genetic structure of American popular culture, white and black, right down to the grassroots levels of homemade entertainment.