Today marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. Last Thursday, I found myself standing less than seven feet from where he fell at the Lorraine Motel. The sobriety of the event and and my proximity to it defies description.
The effect of Dr. King’s death on American society is well documented. There’s no need to repeat it here. What I find myself reflecting on is how the act of an assassin completely undermined — and essentially destroyed — one of America’s greatest music labels.
Stax Records was based in Memphis, less than a ten-minute drive from the Lorraine Motel. But during the sixties, the two locations were on different planets.
Make no mistake: Memphis in the sixties was the South. Segregation was the norm. Except at 926 E. Macklemore, where color meant nothing. The last thing anyone worried about at Stax was skin color. If you could sing or play your instrument well, you were in! Musicians from different backgrounds were doing the unthinkable: they worked together, traveled together, ate together, and treated each other as equals. What seems relatively commonplace today simply was not done in 1960s Memphis, or most other places. Except at Stax.
The label was breaking down barriers and mending fences. Men and women who came from (and often practiced) segregated views found themselves altering their points of view. Unprecedented music flowed from the studio and out into the world. Take a few minutes out of your day and check out one the many documentaries on Stax. You’ll be stunned by the sheer tonnage of what that label produced.
And then Dr. King was shot, and it all came crashing down.
Walls of distrust, long removed, were reconstructed. Music slowly became re-segregated, and the FM formats taking over the airwaves in the 70s didn’t help. One bullet caused a ripple effect that went far beyond the obvious actions people saw on television. A rising, thriving community of hope was destroyed. And what better place for people of different backgrounds to bond than over music?
One of the many reasons I love this art form is because music transcends nearly every boundary. Its language is universal. Whether or not the sound resonates within is up to the listener, not his ethnicity. And that’s the way it should be! My generation has been slow to accept this. Fortunately, my daughter’s generation appears to know better.
It doesn’t matter to me what your personal politics are. I don’t care who you call God. I’m not concerned with what makes us different. I would like us to come together on this: Music is the great equalizer. It’s a place where we can meet on common ground and speak a similar language.
Perhaps if we can start there, we can make our way to common ground in many other areas. Let’s make the ripple effect work for us, rather than against us. And Martin Luther King, Jr. will not have died in vain.