As one who came of age during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, I accept that the outrage triggered by the George Floyd incident is a legitimate response to entrenched injustices plaguing law enforcement across much of America. But the protests are also disheartening in that, a half century after the landmark voting right acts, they show we still confront such problems. Disheartening also because, ultimately, protests won’t resolve the underlying core problem.
That’s because the nature of the current protests inevitably accentuates differences. Skin color A gets justice, skin color B does not. Consequently, protests fall short of promoting the ultimate solution: to obliterate from the national consciousness all forms of racial prejudice, to the point where groups A and B don’t exist. All are the same. We need to keep our eyes on the prize.
How do you accomplish that? We can gain insights from what happened in three recording studios that defined the sound of the 1960s soul music explosion: Motown in Detroit, Stax in Memphis, and Fame in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Of course, all of the up-front artists were African-American. But the musicians backing them in the studios were almost always a blend. The Funk Brothers of Detroit changed members over the years, but the mix averaged about 80% black to 20% white. The house band at Stax, Booker T and the MGs augmented by the Memphis Horns, was an even 50-50 split. Reflecting the demographics of North Alabama, the Muscle Shoals studio cats – though steeped in radio R&B – were mostly white.
However, the percentages of each race were irrelevant. There were no quotas. There was no affirmative action. There was only a common purpose. Make sure the black singer(s) behind the main microphone came away with a hit record.
In the end, chops and attitude were all that mattered. Did you have mastery of your instrument? Could you feel the unique rhythmic idioms of soul music? And could you set aside your own ego and do your best to fulfill the intentions of the producer and the artist?
If you could do that, you were in the band. Skin color was irrelevant. Everybody contributed to the same groove. Can you identify which session musicians were black and which were white in the hits of that era — by Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding , Sam and Dave, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder and others? “Oh yeah, James Jamerson plays bass like a black man while Duck Dunn is obviously white.” “I knew all along that Aretha’s first mega-hits were propelled by a rhythm section of southern white boys.” Gimme a break.
Again, erasing the entrenched attitudes at the core of racism cannot be accomplished with protests, peaceful or violent. That can only be done when we come together around a common purpose, and when we consider only at what each person uniquely contributes toward attaining that goal, regardless of skin color.
Otis wrote it and sang it first, but Aretha followed with the monster hit. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”. That’s the foundation. The soul music groove couldn’t happen unless all musicians had respect for each other’s contributions. And ultimately, no civil society can survive without it. Mutual respect thrives when we have a common purpose, a deep commitment that recognizes the betterment of our selves is ultimately impossible without the betterment of all. And, alas, such respect is sorely missing in our national leadership today.
In December of 1967, a small plane carrying Otis Redding crashed in Wisconsin. Four months later, Martin Luther King was assassinated at the same Memphis motel where Eddie Floyd (black) and Steve Cropper (white) had co-written “Knock on Wood.” Soon after, soul music slowly succumbed to a racial chill.
A chill from which we have yet to recover. Yes, we must address structural injustices, but we also must keep our eyes on the prize. We can start by respecting the basic humanity of all Americans, and move on from there to rediscover — or construct anew — a common purpose at the soul of our nation.
Bruce Borgerson lives in Ashland.