The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is in the history books. Sadly, the role of jazz musicians and the jazz culture in breaking down barriers to racial integration has largely been lost to history.
In 1939, Billie Holiday told the nation that “Southern trees bear a strange fruit.”
Holiday, Armstrong and Waller were members of the Harlem Renaissance. In his invocation at the “Let Freedom Ring” commemoration, Pastor A.R. Bernard Sr. noted how artists helped ignite the civil rights movement:
They called themselves the New Negro Movement, better known as the Harlem Renaissance, creating their own literature, art, music, theater. They artistically and intellectually challenged the pervading black stereotypes. From this generation emerged names like W.E.B. DuBois, Alain LeRoy Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.
White America experienced it and said, “Ooh, we like the style of these people.” So they enjoyed it, adopted it, integrated it and exploited it. And the popularity of black style and culture soon spread throughout the country. But it was not enough for black folks to be artistically admired. Blacks wanted and demanded full participation in the social, political and economic life of American society. And that attitude set the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and the 1960s.
The legacy of the March on Washington includes the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In February 2014, we will commemorate the signing of that seminal legislation, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s remarks at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. For more information, send us an email.