On Monday, January 19th, the nation will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King. In Philadelphia, a broad-based coalition will remember the drum major for justice by reclaiming his legacy and marching for justice, jobs and education.
The #ReclaimMLK coalition is moving beyond the sanitized version of Dr. King (Full Disclosure: I’m a member of the planning committee). We are taking back the King Holiday and organizing MLK D.A.R.E. (MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment). At least 10,000 demonstrators are expected to take to the streets on the day of action and agitation.
The #ReclaimMLK coalition’s demands include an end to stop-and-frisk, an independent police review board, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, a fair funding formula for public schools and a democratically-elected school board.
It’s only fitting that we open our doors in light of the role of the Black Church during the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, our founder Bishop Richard Allen opened these doors in 1817 for the first large scale, national demonstration of free African Americans.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s remarks to the 1st Berlin Jazz Festival. In the foreword to the program, Dr. King wrote:
God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.
Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.
This is triumphant music.
Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.
Twenty years earlier, a jazz drummer, Joseph Rudolph Jones, triumphed over the hard reality facing black employees of the Philadelphia Transportation Company. When the PTC proposed to hire blacks as trolley car operators, the segregated Philadelphia Rapid Transit Employees Union staged a wildcat strike. As Bart Everts wrote for Hidden City Philadelphia, the illegal strike threatened the war effort:
Seventy years ago, on August 1, 1944, a faction of white transit workers with the Philadelphia Transit Company (PTC) staged a wildcat strike for a nefarious reason: they didn’t want African Americans, employed by the transit company as mechanics and laborers, to be given the same high paying jobs driving the trolleys they had.
The strike effectively shut down Philadelphia, one of the key centers of defense related manufacturing, at a crucial moment in World War II. The action halted the city’s war production, as workers were unable to get to the Navy Yard and factories throughout the city. Philadelphia was the third largest producer of war materials (about one of every six dollars spent here), and the military and federal government quickly took notice. The threat of a major disruption was so severe that the Roosevelt Administration intervened, ending the strike after a week.
When the strike ended, Jones was among the first group of African American trolley operators (Jones is on the far left).
Legendary jazz drummer Charlie Rice recounted that Jones was a multi-tasker:
Joe had a job driving a trolley car – the 21 line that extended from Chestnut Hill, at the very top of Philadelphia at the North End, all the way through the city down to South Philadelphia. That was the longest trolley ride in the city.
It ran on 11th Street, right past the Downbeat, which was on the second floor.
Joe often stopped the trolley in front of the club. He’d grab the controls, jump out, and sit in for a number or two. The people hung out the window of the trolley, growing more and more impatient. They wanted to get home, or wherever they were going. When Joe got back to the trolley, everybody would cheer, and off they’d go to South Philly.
Joe, better known as Philly Joe Jones, went on to become a modern jazz drumming legend.
Long before Philly Joe Jones became the drummer of choice for Miles Davis and John Coltrane, his trolley route went pass Coltrane’s apartment on 12th Street in North Philly. While the rowhouse where Coltrane lived when his family migrated from North Carolina is no longer there, the tracks are still visible.
Fifty years ago in June 1964, hundreds of students from across the country joined civil rights activists and changed the course of American history. Freedom Summer, aka the Mississippi Summer Project, was a 10-week campaign to register African American voters in Mississippi, and operate Freedom Schools and community programs.
While I love jazz, I live for the blues. I don’t remember a time in my life when the blues didn’t touch me to my core.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Jimmy McGriff’s Hammond B-3 organ fueled my imagination. So it was awesome to discover McGriff perfected his craft in organ joints in West Philly.
The blues is the prism through which I view the world. The musical genre shaped my self-image and my expectations about male-female relationships. It captured my joy. When that joy turned to pain, “I cried like a baby.” But guess what? “Everything is really all right.”
The blues is more than a feeling. It’s a state of mind. Since we were “brought over on a ship,” blues has been our sanctuary.
This is music with humble beginnings, roots in slavery and segregation, a society that rarely treated black Americans with the dignity and respect that they deserved. The blues bore witness to these hard times. And like so many of the men and women who sang them, the blues refused to be limited by the circumstances of their birth.
The music migrated north—from Mississippi Delta to Memphis to my hometown in Chicago. It helped lay the foundation for rock and roll and R&B and hip-hop. It inspired artists and audiences around the world. And as tonight’s performers will demonstrate, the blues continue to draw a crowd. Because this music speaks to something universal. No one goes through life without both joy and pain, triumph and sorrow. The blues gets all of that, sometimes with just one lyric or one note.
Blacks learned how to sing the blues rather than just giving up on life. A guy’s wife walks out on him with his best friend. And he’s crushed. So what does he say? Instead of going out and taking a gun and killing he sings a song “I’m going down to the railroad to lay my poor head on the track. I’m going down to the railroad to lay my poor head on the track. And when the locomotive comes I’m gonna pull my fool head back.
I’m not giving up life over this. That life goes on beyond this. Pain is just for a moment. This whole notion about what we’re going through is only a season. And this came to pass, didn’t come to stay. That’s what the blues do. And that’s what the music tradition does.
When black folks were connected to the blues, we had a plan and we worked that plan. The plan took us from the slave master’s house to claiming victory at the White House, where President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The blues is how we got over. This is turn begs the question: What’s not to love?