This week on American Routes Shortcuts, we’re recalling the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. We’ll hear memories of the Civil Rights leader from Harry Belafonte, former Raelette and preacher Mable John, and the great singer, Mavis Staples.
Nick Spitzer: Most people know Harry Belafonte from his calypso hit, the “Banana Boat Song.” But Belafonte’s efforts to improve conditions for people of color show more of the man. Harry was a friend of Martin Luther King, and produced “Long Road to Freedom,” an anthology of Black music.
Harry Belafonte: Just before going to Memphis, Dr. King had a meeting at my home, and I noticed how preoccupied he looked, and I asked him what was the matter, and he said, “I’ve been giving a lot of thought to our struggle. I’m beginning to feel that we may be, in our integration, we may be integrating into a burning house.” He felt that American was losing its moral center, losing its soul. So when I asked, “Well if America’s integrating into a burning house, what do we do?” He said, “We’re going to have to become firemen.”
Nick Spitzer: Mable John has been a Los Angeles community preacher for more than 20 years, but she earned fame as an R&B singer with both Motown and Stax records. When Mable was an R&B singer, she met Martin Luther King.
Mable John: We always stayed when we were at Stax at the Lorraine Motel. And he stayed whenever he would come to Memphis, at the Lorraine Motel. I had a certain room there that I liked, and every time he was coming to town, he was getting the same room. Well I was in town to record; I had to stay over another day. Dr. King was coming in the next day. The owners of the Lorraine Motel said to me, “Oh Miss John, do you mind since you’re leaving tomorrow anyway, getting out of the room very early and so we can get it ready for him and we’ll give you a room down the hall?” I said, “No I don’t mind!” I said, “It’ll give me a chance to say hello to him.” He said, “I heard you had my room,” I said, “Yes I heard you wanted mine,” and we just king of swapped a few words like that, and I left. And by the time I arrived in Chicago and got off the plane, everybody in the airport was talking about Dr. King has been shot. I said, “That can’t be true, I just left him in Memphis.” And just that quick, that man’s life was gone.
Nick Spitzer: Chicago-based gospel, soul, and protest singer Mavis Staples has visited with us over the years on American Routes. Back in 1998, at the dawn of our program, she reflected on how her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples became involved with the Civil Rights Movement in 1957, penning the song, “Why Am I Treated So Bad?”
Mavis Staples: This was Dr. King’s favorite song that we would sing, “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” and anytime we did the concerts to raise funds for the movement, he would asked Pops, he said, “Stape, you going to sing my song?” Pops said, “Yeah Doctor, gonna sing your song tonight.” When we met Dr. King, we were in Montgomery; we were supposed to sing that night at 8 o’clock. And Pops called us all to his room and he told us, he said, “This man Martin, I’ve been hearing him, and I would like to meet him.” He said, “I’m going to his service if you all want to go.” So we said, “Sure we want to go.” We went to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery there. Dr. King was a young man, his wife, Coretta, she was a young lady, she was singing in the choir. So we heard his sermon, and after service he would go to the back of the church to shake everyone’s hands as they’re coming out, and we spoke to him and talked to him. We get back to the motel, and Pops said, “Y’all know, I really enjoyed Dr. Martin Luther King, and I liked that message that he has, that he speaks about. I just really think if he can preach that, we can sing it.” So from that, we joined the movement, and we made a transition, it was our transition from strictly gospel to what we called protest songs really.
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