MLK, WDIA, & THE SOUNDS OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS ERA
The year was 1968. Memphis, Tennessee and, indeed, much of the United States, were embroiled in one of the most turbulent times in American history. Black Americans were at the zenith of the Civil Rights Movement, fighting for equality, respect, unions, fair labor and voting laws, and the right to lead happy and productive lives amid the difficulties and obstacles they faced in the era of Jim Crow.
In Memphis, black sanitation department workers were on strike in an attempt to gain better working conditions, better wages, and the right to form a union. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made two trips to Memphis to help galvanize them. His first protest rally resulted in rioting, mass confrontation between protestors and police, and the undermining of his nonviolent approach.
More famously, when King returned to Memphis the following month to resume the protest in an attempt to regain decorum, he was gunned down on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968 at 6:01 pm and died shortly thereafter from the lone bullet.
To commemorate the April 4, 2018 50th anniversary of King’s assassination in Memphis, the Stax Music Academy (SMA) is embarking on a project to present during February’s 2018 Black History Month – an original production focusing on the musical artists and recordings that influenced Dr. King – both secular and sacred. It is a unique study into the life of the Civil Rights icon that has never been done before.
Part of the context in which the music and message of the SMA Black History Month original production will be showcased is in historic reference to WDIA Radio in Memphis, the first black owned, operated, and formatted radio station in the United States. WDIA was not only one of the most popular music stations in the region but was also a force in the community for social change and Civil Rights.
To make all of this possible, SMA has conducted diligent research into the music that influenced Dr. King and how that music played a greater role in the Civil Rights Movement. Artists such as Aretha Franklin, gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, Stax icons the Staple Singers and Mable John, and soul crooner Sam Cooke not only had various ties to Memphis and Dr. King but also were mainstays on the pioneering WDIA.
Black History Month and the months of work leading up to the SMA production also present an opportunity for SMA to reach a larger number of students to participate, including aspects of the show beyond performance, including stage design, costuming, research, lighting, and other aspects of the show. This also offers our target audience of potentially at-risk middle and high school students the opportunity to engage in the kind of programming that ties them to their community and to their very identity as African Americans.
The SMA Black History Month production reaches one segment of our audience through a free, daytime performance for students in Shelby County, with emphasis on groups from schools in areas that traditionally have less access to the arts than some others. In addition to attending the performance free-of-charge, SMA is working with our partners at the National Civil Rights Museum to create a curriculum guide that will enable the school districts to fully explain the message behind the music and can be used to enhance the students’ understanding of the history of the era and the impact it has on our society today.