January 16th - Everybody's Got a Right to Live

Everybody's Got a Right to Live - Jimmy Collier & Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, 1968

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States; had Dr. King not been assassinated - and if he had survived all attempts by white supremacy to destroy him hence - he would have celebrated his 88th birthday on Sunday.

You may note that 88 - while elderly - is not actually that old. People who were active participants in the Civil Rights movement still live today - our President Elect has spent the last few days spewing abuse at Congressman John Lewis, a living legend who worked with king as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Veterans of these battles still live - they can still tell their stories. But even though this struggle took place within living memory there is an active effort to both neuter and discredit what the marchers and protesters and leaders fought for. The words of Dr. King are now used in defense of those who would have been his enemies, or they are ignored so that his journey could be considered fulfilled with the barest of legal protections.

There are many albums in the Smithsonian Folkways archive that are related to the Civil Rights movement, several of which actually feature Dr. King's voice.  But I decided to write about Everybody's Got a Right to Live because of something on the cover. On the cover of this album - recorded just a few months after King's assassination by two of his colleagues from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - there is a small note which reads "Our KING Will Never Die."

The songs on this album are not like the Civil Rights songs that I learned about in school. Sure, they come from a tradition of gospel, work and protest songs - but these songs are furious. They're aimed not just at bigotry but also at poverty, war and the CIA's meddling in Ghana - in fact, fighting racism as a mental condition is almost never mentioned in these songs, which focus on the material conditions that racism causes. The songs don't aim to convince white people that not being racist would be nice - they demand equal treatment and equal pay, and are extremely blatant about the consequences if denied, from marching to civil violence. And these songs are not just for listening - the liner notes include notation so that any listener could then go and play these songs on their own.

It's important to remember that the work of the Civil Rights movement is not over - it is still ongoing - and that the lessons of the movement are as applicable today as ever. Black people - not just Dr. King but all of those who agitated and fought and marched with him - with almost no institutional support behind them fought for their rights against literally murderous opposition. There are people who want us to both forget why they fought and how they won.

Click here to read liner notes and purchase this album from Smithsonian Folkways