The Civil Rights Movement and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. affected the way we saw ourselves, the way we responded to microaggressions and blatant discrimination. It also affected our creative expression.
Some of the world’s best music was born of this movement, a reflection of our collective joy and triumph, deep angst and anxiety, grief and mourning. As a people, we felt empowered and emboldened and FED UP. The assassination of Dr. King added fuel to the fire in our bellies.
It seems no coincidence that Memphis became a hot seat of the movement and the music scene at that time, with Stax and Hi Records leading the charge.
As part of the MLK50 thread, I spoke with David Porter – a force behind many-a timeless song and currently the helmsman of the Made in Memphis label – about the affect King’s life and death had on him and other artists and the music of the movement.
“We were devastated…when it happened Isaac (Hayes) and I got in our car and tried to drive as close as we could to where it happened. We couldn’t do anything else at that time,” Porter said.
“There was a spirit of ‘we gotta make this world a different place’. It was an emotionally turbulent time for us. We felt a sense of responsibility…the creative pool at that time, certainly around Stax, was about making our music serve a greater purpose….This is (also) why we did WattStax….”
“When the assassination happened, we became even more cognizant of the fact that there was even more of responsibility with the messaging of the songs. There was a depression around that time to say the least. (But) there was an energy inside of us that was extremely powerful…if you listen to the Staple Singers and Rance Allen, who I worked with,… the product (the songs) related to the times.
“We were speaking to the displeasure at how we were being treated,” he said. “There was a spirit of ‘we gotta make this world a different place’. It was an emotionally turbulent time for us. We felt a sense of responsibility…the creative pool at that time, certainly around Stax, was about making our music serve a greater purpose….This is (also) why we did WattStax….”
It took a while to get a sense of emotional balance and get back into the creative mode,” Porter said.
“For the first few days after the assassination of Dr. King, you really didn’t see any recording sessions going on. When that happened, it was like a dark cloud came over Memphis, Tennessee.”
The Stax musicians participated in the marches and protests. Neither Hayes nor Porter were as high profile as they became in later years. So, they were able to move around without being recognized. They marched and protested and quietly gave money where it was needed.
In 2018, we as a community are still struggling, protesting and flailing under the weight of similar societal ills. Porter is keenly aware of that and feels that King’s spirit of giving is reflected among the citizens of Memphis. Giving, whether you have a little or a lot, is a part of our city’s character. And it is remarkable given that we are a city where roughly a quarter of our people live in poverty.
The 38126 (the area around Stax) is the poorest in the city. Despite that, there are bright spots. People actively working to address the food desert in the area, community bike rides, business development and so on. We talked about how the positive things so often go unrecognized.
“I don’t think that message is given the kind of visibility that it warrants. People don’t see those that have little resources that go out of their way to help young people. I give Dr. King credit for that because even though he is no longer here, his example has been a strong motivating factor for a lot of good that happens.”
On an individual level, said Porter, “I feel the necessity to do something constructive to show that we help those that follow us, the young people. That’s why I started the Consortium MMT in 2012. It’s a free resource. It is important to stimulate wealth. I mean for me at almost 76 years old to put down golf…”
His voice trailed off.
Then putting a bow on the conversation, Porter said, “Dr. King’s legacy and life were not in vain because you have a great many people whose hearts are in the right place. There is no doubt in my mind, that were it not for the people who are doing good in our community, the poverty situation would be even worse.”