The influence of music on the Civil Rights Movement was examined by scholars, industry professionals, and musicians at the 8th Annual B.B. King Day at Mississippi Valley State University. The Blues and Civil Rights symposium was held earlier this month at the R.W. Harrison Complex. A great deal of the music of the Movement was created and inspired by Mississippians who were on the front line of the struggle, particularly those living in the Delta.
The dialogue was only interrupted by a moment of silence to honor the legacy of Blues legends and civil rights activists, including brothers Syl and Jimmy Johnson, Pervis Spann, Sam Lay, Ronnie Spector, Bobby O’Jay, Sidney Portier, Timmy Thomas, Willie Cobbs, Denise LaSalle, Otis Clay, Big George Brock, Ruben Hughes, Ben Peyton, Frank “Scrap Iron” Robinson, Melvin “Housecat” Hendrick, Walter Riley King, Eddy, “The Chief” Clearwater, Stanley Abernathy, Booker Walker, and Sonny Rhodes. The request was made by Robert Terrell, operations manager at the B.B. King Museum & Interpretive Center in Indianola.
Dr. Alphonso Sanders, founder of the B.B. King Day Symposium, along with Dr. Ruthie S. Golden, Sr. Provost & VP of Academic Affairs, echoed the importance of coming together at MVSU to honor Riley “B.B.” King, a native of the Mississippi Delta and possibly the most influential Bluesman to ever strike a note on a guitar. “B.B. King Day should always be commemorated and celebrated, especially here in the Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of America’s music and the birthplace of the Blues,” he said. International Blues songstress Teeny Tucker led the audience in the singing of the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing.
Symposium panelists from Mississippi had ample history to share. The Honorable Johnny Thomas, mayor of Glendora and CEO of the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center, showed a brief film that depicted personal accounts from Moses Wright, Emmett’s grandfather, of the night that he was abducted. Thomas is also the author of A Stone of Hope.
Hermon Johnson, president and CEO of the Taborian Hospital Museum in Mound Bayou, gave a personal account of the history of the town and how Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On hit song was originally crafted in Mound Bayou, and shared it had no sexual reference in its raw format but rather was a rallying cry to the people of the Movement to take up arms and defend themselves against Jim Crow laws and the KKK. Mound Bayou is the all-Black town birthed after Reconstruction and home to Dr. R.T.M. Howard, who provided housing and security for Mamie Till when she came to Mississippi for the Emmett Till murder trial of 1955.
Berneta Miles, an R&B singer/songwriter of international acclaim, along with Professor Sterling Plumpp, winner of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s Fuller Award for lifetime achievement in 2019, told personal stories relating to “The Power of Freedom Songs and Black Poetry.” Plumpp, a native of Clinton, stated, “The Blues Trail Markers of Mississippi should have been placed at the home churches of the famous Blues singers, not on white plantations, because the Black church is where they developed their distinctive sounds imitated by the likes of Elvis Pressley and others.
“I consider B.B. King as Blues royalty. You couldn’t go to see B.B. King up North for $3 or $4; you had to pay a pretty penny and put on your best suit because that’s how the entertainers dressed on stage. The Blues’ singer had a transformational experience with the Blues they developed that put them in another frame of mind and emotional state.”
Plumpp also referenced James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison’s books Nobody Knows My Name and Shadow and I, but added, “I feel the two white scholars of note are William Ferris (Give My Poor Heart Ease) and Jim O’Neal (founder of Living Blues Magazine).”
Berneta Miles spoke about her personal and emotional issues as she attended an all-white school in Arkansas, stating, “I used songs such as Respect Yourself and Keep on Pushing as my release to get over my anger of being slapped, hit in the face, and being spit on by racist parents and students during integration. All songs tell a story. The music of my generation directed my path in life; song lyrics are poetry; and journaling is a way for students to capture their feelings and the CD Fight the Good Fight by Vaneese Thomas, niece of Rufus Thomas, is a prime example of poetry turned into song lyrics.”
The pre-lunch music break featured Bluesmen Lil Ray Neal, D. K. Harrell, and Jesse Robinson along with members of B.B. King’s original band. Ray Neal was selected to play B.B. King’s guitar, Lucille, on loan from the B.B. King Museum and Interpretive Center, the anchor sponsor of the symposium. Neal led a rousing version of the famous B.B. King hit Why I Sing the Blues that garnered a standing ovation from the crowd.
The afternoon session began with a video presentation by Dr. Dina Bennett, an ethnomusicologist from Indian University who currently serves as the Director of Collections and Curatorial Affairs at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, MO. Dr. Bennett addressed the topic, “Link Between Blues, Gospel, and Freedom Songs,” making note this music was of the oral tradition with no written music, instead utilizing Leader Call and Response:
• Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around
• I Shall Not Be Moved
• This Little Light of Mine
• Lift Every Voice and Sing
• We Shall Overcome
• Woke Up This Morning With Jesus On My Mind
Dr. Bennett also spoke on the music of Thomas Dorsey, known as the Father of Gospel Music, and folk spirituals, and made special note of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s address at the Berlin Jazz Festival (1964).
Dr. Sanders deviated from the written program and invited Dr. Roy Hudson, a MVSU professor emeritus and Itta Bena native, to address the audience to provide some oral history regarding being raised in the Delta during the height of the Movement. He related stories of needing to know how to act around white folk during the time Emmett Till was killed. “Parents in the Delta had ‘The Talk’ with their Black children to keep them out of trouble and out of harm’s way, just as Black parents are having ‘The Talk’ today to tell our children and young adults, especially Black men and boys, how to act when they encounter the police with the hope that they will make it home alive,” he said.
Charles Mitchell, president/CEO of the Jus Blues Foundation, presented “Voices of the Movement”, concentrating on R&B songs that evoked the human condition as illuminated by the likes of Levi Stubbs and The Impressions with hits like Choice of Colors and The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story 1969, People Get Ready, and Is It Because I’m Black by Syl Johnson. Other Freedom Song singers and writers that Mitchell made note of included Sam Cooke, The Staple Singers, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, The O’Jays, and Joan Baez. Jus Blues Foundation is revered as the nation’s premier Blues music awards event.
Von Coulter, actor, voiceover talent, and on-air-personality/producer for Jazz Beats Radio, spoke on several topics, including “It’s Time We Got Our Stuff Back” and “What the Music Says, Reflects Who We Are.” He’s convinced Louis Armstrong is the greatest musician of all time who fought behind the scenes of the Movement, and credits Donny Hathaway’s Some Day We’ll All Be Free as one of the greatest Freedom Songs of the Movement.
The highlight of the symposium was the announcement of this year’s winners of the B.B. King Art Competition by Spence Townsend, Instructor of Fine Arts for MVSU Arts Program. First place honors went to Ciara Williams of Amanda Elsey High School; Marisa Wiley of Greenwood High School won second place.
Acknowledging there is only one way to end a Blues symposium, a star-studded musical group met at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center for a jam session.
The anchor sponsors for the 8th Annual B.B. King Day Symposium were Mississippi Valley State University; Experience Greenwood, Mississippi; Dr. Riley B. King Recording Studio; Margaret W. Clark; and the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center.