Selma’s Music: The Politics of Commemorating Bloody Sunday

By: Felicia Miyakawa (Round Rock, TX) //

In 1965, documentary filmmaker Stefan Sharff captured the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sharff’s style is sonically sparse: in the entire 17-minute film, we hear only the chopping of helicopter blades; the voice of Dr. King, taken from a recording of his speech in Montgomery; and the communal singing of Civil Rights songs. The music is nondiegetic, meaning that the people in the film do not hear what we hear. And although the documentary captures the sight of marchers singing, we do not hear what they actually sing. Instead, we hear four songs common to Civil Rights marches, protests, and meetings—“This Little Light of Mine,” “I’m So Glad,” “We Are Soldiers,” and “We Shall Overcome”—as performed by the Montgomery Gospel Trio, Nashville Quartet, and Guy Carawan, preserved for history on We Shall Overcome: Songs of the Freedom Riders and the Sit-ins, a recording by Smithsonian Folkways.


Selma–Montgomery March, 1965, a documentary by Stefan Sharff

It took the marchers three attempts to reach Montgomery. March 7, 1965, was particularly violent and would become known as Bloody Sunday. Six hundred marchers, led by John Lewis, Dr. King, and leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, attempted to leave Selma en route to Montgomery via the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But when they arrived, they found their way blocked by state and local police. The protestors—marching for voting rights—refused to stop, and the troopers attacked them with billy clubs. In the end, over four dozen protesters were hospitalized. Dr. King rallied marchers two days later, only to be blocked once again at the bridge. A third attempt, begun March 21 and protected by federal sanction, was finally successful. Later that year, the Voting Rights Act was passed into law.

President Lyndon B. Johnson with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks after signing the Voter Rights Act of 1965 into law.

March 7, 2015 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday, and a number of events commemorated the march within the larger context of the Civil Rights movement. Music—and in particular, freedom songs—played a crucial role in the march; organizers of this year’s events agreed that music had to play an important part now as well. Before the Bloody Sunday anniversary, Anita Archie, chief of staff to Montgomery’s mayor, Todd Strange, told the Montgomery Advertiser: “Music was an important aspect of the movement so it’s important for music to be a part of the anniversary.” Ken Mullinax, director of media relations at Alabama State University, made a similar statement: “To have music involved is paying homage to the civil rights songs of the movement.” The university hosted a concert headlined by Patti LaBelle, but music played an important role even outside of concert spaces. On the day of the Bloody Sunday anniversary, President Obama spoke at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Less than two minutes into the speech, he quoted “God Will Take Care of You,” a song the marchers sang.

President Barack Obama speaks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge at a ceremony commemorating Bloody Sunday. During the speech, President Obama linked himself with the history of African American history and music: “We are the inventors of gospel and jazz and the blues, bluegrass and country, hip-hop and rock and roll, our very own sounds with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.” The President later marched across the bridge with John Lewis, former President George W. Bush, and other dignitaries. On March 8, to further commemorate the march, some 80,000 people walked the bridge.

Television and media giant BET also hosted an all-star concert, billed as Salute to Selma and broadcast for streaming media from the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the evening of March 8, 2015. Civil Rights-era entertainers, such as Harry Belafonte, Bill Withers, Cicely Tyson, and Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) made appearances. Performers included Tamar Braxton, Blind Boys of Alabama, Kirk Franklin, Tyrese, Keith Sweat, India.Arie, Eric Benet, Angie Stone, Arrested Development, Bebe Winans, and Donnie McClurkin. Several Hip-hop stars joined forces to re-create “Self-Destruction,” a classic recording from 1989 about ending gang violence. Flava Flav (formerly of Pubic Enemy), D-Nice, MC Lyte, and Doug E. Fresh were all on the original track; Rick Ross and Bel Biv DeVoe joined them to reenact the song at the Selma concert.

“Self-Destruction” encapsulates many of the community-driven, positive messages common to rap of the late 1980s. Given the song’s uplifting lyrics, it was a suitable choice for an event meant to celebrate survival in the face of adversity, peace that can come out of violence. But the re-enactment of “Self-Destruction” drew little advance attention. Instead, audiences and critics alike expressed disbelief and anger over one of the performers slated to join: the much maligned Vanilla Ice.

Days before the event, the Internet was buzzing with the news that he would join the “Self-Destruction” ensemble and perform one of his own songs (“Ice, Ice Baby”). He is known for a single hit; public humiliation after revealing that his inner-city “authenticity” was a lie; appearances on “reality” television programs; and a public criminal record, recently enlarged with a robbery charge. He has never been known for political statements, and certainly not for his sensitivities to racial politics. Pundits were quick to excoriate BET for booking him. Sean O’Neal at The A.V. Club played with a reference to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, noting that Vanilla Ice offers us all an equal opportunity to scoff: “Fulfilling Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that one day man would not be judged by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character, BET will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma with a concert by Vanilla Ice—a rapper who happens to be white, but is more importantly terrible. The announcement has already united little black boys and little black girls and little white boys and little white girls in harmony, as they come together at the table of brotherhood to agree that Vanilla Ice sucks.” Andrew Ricketts at the music blog Uproxx quipped ironically: “What better way to remember 300+ years of black struggle at a civil rights landmark than a Vanilla Ice concert?” Other websites credited his hiring to pervasive White Privilege, or simply dismissed the choice as yet another one of BET’s poorly conceived ideas. Paxton Baker, the President of BET event productions, was ridiculed on a number of websites for his naive explanation of why he reached out to Vanilla Ice for this commemorative event: Vanilla Ice is “cool” and was available

Given the on-going unrest in Ferguson, Missouri; widely-publicized killings of unarmed black men by police officers (such as Michael Brown, whose death touched off the Ferguson unrest, and Eric Garner, who died in New York City police custody after being held in a chokehold); and the recently released video showing members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma chanting racial epithets, it is legitimate for us to question how far we have really come since the Civil Rights movement. The anniversary of Bloody Sunday was an opportunity to make powerful statements, and to use music as part of that effort. The furor over Vanilla Ice reminds us how much music matters when we commemorate events, particularly when the events we seek to remember are still not resolved.

BET’s performer roster reveals an attempt to balance artists from the Civil Rights Era with newer artists; clearly Vanilla Ice was there to entertain, not to educate. But in the present racial and political climate, as protesters still gather to speak against perceived injustice in Ferguson and elsewhere, every musical choice matters. “Ice, Ice Baby” does not even begin to address the legacy of the Civil Rights era. 

Events commemorating the march to Selma began well before the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. In January 2015, Common and John Legend performed “Glory” at the foot of the bridge. The song was featured in Selma, the film released to critical acclaim in December 2014. The soundtrack is rich in gospel and rhythm and blues, authentic musical sounds of the era, but at least one critic noted that it’s missing the communal songs the marchers sang, the music that fueled the work of freedom. “Glory” won an Oscar for Best Original Song, and Legend and Common reprised their performance at the awards ceremony in February. In the staged version, Common raps in front of a representation of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the nexus of Bloody Sunday. A choir joins in, not just to provide a gospel background, but also to embody the marchers, while images from Civil Rights marches alternate on a backdrop behind the bridge. Common raps not only of the gains of the Civil Rights movement, but also of the challenges still before us, mentioning Ferguson specifically.

During their acceptance speech, Common and Legend called attention to losses incurred since Selma, such as rising incarceration rates for black men and ongoing erosion of the Voting Rights Acts. Their performance and the narrative surrounding it remind us how much work is left to do. As Legend said during his Oscar acceptance speech: “We say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now.”

For Discussion

  1. When planning events such as the Bloody Sunday anniversary, how involved should elders who participated in the actual movement be, and what roles should they play? If elders such as Harry Belafonte and Peter Yarrow perform, will younger audiences recognize their significance?
  2. Should younger artists perform their own music, music from the Civil Rights movement, or both? And must the younger artists, given the responsibility of representing an incredibly significant moment in our nation’s history, also be known for their political engagement?
  3. How much should commemoration be about education, and how much about entertainment?

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