A PALER SHADE OF WHITE AT THE OSCARS

CELEBRATE BLACK HISTORY MONTH

A Martin Luther King Day Commentary

By Ross Altman, PhD

OscarsSunday evening February 28—the highlight of Black History Month—America will be glued to their TV sets watching the Academy Awards—for which not one single black actor or actress or director has been nominated. If it weren’t so typical—the rule rather than the exception—it would hardly be noticed. But for some reason it has been noticed, even by the LA Times which published a stunning group photo of all the nominees on their front page Oscar issue—A Whiter Shade of Pale if there ever was one.

Why should this retrograde action on the part of the Motion Picture Academy be of concern to a folk music magazine? Because we have heard from all corners of the academy (the academic world, not of motion pictures only) that the election (and re-election) of America’s first black president was a signal that the “race problem” in America had been solved, that we now lived in a “post-racial society,” the actual title of a forward-thinking academic book that we no longer had to worry about such things as racism, discrimination, segregation, Jim Crow, and so on—clearly black people were no longer being held down—so if they weren’t succeeding it was (to borrow a line from songwriter Jimmy Buffett) “their own damn fault.” Moral: we no longer needed Affirmative Action.

The Supreme Court affirmed Wilbur C. Rich’s thesis—The Post-Racial Society is Here—by virtually expunging the 1965 Voting Rights Act from the law of the land, and allowing states once again to monitor their voting laws with no supervision from the federal government. They could return to the pre-civil rights movement standards of states’ rights policies that made it as difficult as possible—or even impossible—for black people to vote at all. As we enter the home stretch of the presidential election—as Martin Luther King, Jr.—whose birthday we celebrate today— said in his I Have a Dream speech—now is the time to bring the soundtrack of the civil rights movement to bear on this significant new sign that the clock is being turned back on fifty years of civil rights progress. That soundtrack is virtually identical with the best folk music of the decade of social change that produced it—freedom songs of the 1960s.

Just last year Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Smokey Robinson were invited to the White House for a special concert based on songs of the Civil Rights Movement. The President and the First Lady were in the audience to enjoy and applaud their efforts. Both Dylan and Baez sang at the March on Washington and were linked to the movement through their songs. But Dylan did more than sing—he walked the walk and went down to Greenwood, Mississippi in the aftermath of the murder of Medgar Evers, where he gave perhaps the single most important performance of his life—on the back porch of a black family’s ramshackle house—of the song he had just written: Only a Pawn In Their Game:

A bullet from the back of a bush

Took Medgar Evers blood

A finger fired the trigger to his name

A handle lit out in the dark

Two hands set the spark

Two eyes took the aim

Behind a man’s brain

But it ain’t him to blame

He’s only a pawn in their game.

Life Magazine was there to document the performance and the following month, in July, Dylan sang it at the Newport Folk Festival—and then on August 28 at the March on Washington. Two years later in Selma, Alabama the march to Montgomery began which led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Last year’s hit movie Selma told the story as well as it could be told without licensing the rights to King’s actual words—now controlled by King’s heirs who have done all they can to keep them out of the public domain.

Even within those limitations, however, the film gave a powerful, memorable account of the events that led up to the march—including the first attempt at marching across the Edmund Pettis Bridge on what became Bloody Sunday. On the second, successful attempt to march across that notorious landmark in Selma, the movie adds an inspiring soundtrack of freedom and antiwar songs sung by Odetta and Dylan. It’s a magical moment when history and music come together and the power of song to help change the world is underscored.

Yet here we are, just one short year later and it is as if history never happened, Selma never got made, and the slow clock of progress has been ticking backwards ever since.

My inner guitar has been strumming some of these songs—the ones that accompanied the marchers for three hundred miles from Selma to Montgomery—where Martin Luther King told them “We Shall Never Turn Back!” As he often did, he quoted those songs in his speeches; here is the complete opening verse:

We’ve been buked and we’ve been scorned

We’ve been talked about sure as you’re born

But we’ll never turn back

No we’ll never turn back

Until we’ve all been freed

And we have equality.

Another freedom song from the most dangerous days of the civil rights movement goes:

Ain’t gonna let nobody

Turn me ‘round

Turn me ‘round

Turn me ‘round

Ain’t gonna let nobody

Turn me ‘round

I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’

Keep on a-talkin’

Marching into freedom land!

Ain’t gonna let Sherriff Pritchett

Turn me ‘round

Turn me ‘round

Turn me ‘round

Ain’t gonna let Sherriff Pritchett

Turn me ‘round

Gonna keep on a-walkin’

Gonna keep on a-talkin’

Marching into freedom land.

How about this for a contemporary version of the same song?

Ain’t gonna let the Motion Picture Academy

Turn me ‘round

Turn me ‘round

Turn me ‘round

Ain’t gonna let the Motion Picture Academy

Turn me ‘round

I’m gonna keep on a walkin’

Gonna keep on a-talkin’

Marching up to freedom land!

How long?

Until justice rolls down like water

And righteousness like a mighty stream.

Happy Martin Luther King Day. We Shall Overcome.

Los Angeles folk singer Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature; Ross may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.