Civil Rights Summit Explores The Freedom Highway

Graham Nash and Mavis Staples examine music's role as a catalyst for change at the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Texas
  • Photo: Jay Janner-Pool/Getty Images
    Graham Nash performs at the Civil Rights Summit on April 8 in Austin, Texas
  • Photo: Jay Janner-Pool/Getty Images
    Mavis Staples speaks at the Civil Rights Summit on April 8 in Austin, Texas
April 09, 2014 -- 11:20 am PDT
By /

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led his historic March on Washington in 1963 — perhaps the single most galvanizing event associated with the civil rights movement — musical activists the Staple Singers were in England. More than 50 years later, Mavis Staples still hasn't overcome missing it. But the GRAMMY winner frequently flanked King on the front lines, and during her April 8 appearance at the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Texas, she said she's still on the battlefield.

"I'm still singin' freedom songs. I'm not gonna let it go, 'cause I'm a witness. I'm a livin' witness," she intoned, drawing loud applause. "I'm fightin' every day. But I'm fightin' for love, I'm fightin' for hope and I'm fightin' for peace." 

Taking place April 8–10 at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum on the University of Texas' main campus, the summit is drawing President Barack Obama and former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter for the 50th anniversary celebration of President Lyndon B. Johnson's landmark signing of the Civil Rights Act. Staples is scheduled to sing before Clinton's speech on April 9 and Obama's morning address on April 10.

During her session, titled "Music And Social Consciousness," Staples answered questions from GRAMMY Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli, regaling listeners with colorful career stories and poignant memories.

"Most historians acknowledge that music really was the fuel of the civil rights movement," Santelli observed while speaking with Staples, daughter of late Staple Singers patriarch Roebuck "Pops" Staples. "If you took away music, it would have been hard to succeed, because music gave marchers, like yourself and Dr. King, the courage and the strength to push on despite the obstacles and the hardships."

Staples agreed, noting, "We in the church were singing gospel. Gospel is truth. And the civil rights movement was truth."

Singing lines from "Freedom Highway," the first civil rights song her father wrote after hearing King, Staples added, "People love music, I don't care what kind of music it is. When you sing it, [and] you bring in some truth and realness, and people can actually see this happening, what you're singing about, it's gonna move you. It's gonna motivate you."

The two-part session also featured GRAMMY-winning singer/songwriter Graham Nash, who discussed his own efforts to "speak truth to power" with and without bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young. Nash began his segment with the protest anthem "Chicago," written as a plea for Stills and Young to help raise defense funds for the Chicago Seven (then Chicago Eight) conspiracy trial. Accompanying himself on keyboard, Nash changed some of the song's lyrics, but its message rang loud and clear: "We can change the world."

Switching to guitar, he explained how the band rushed to record "Ohio" and told Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun to release it immediately. When Ertegun said it would kill their then-Top 20 single "Teach Your Children," they responded, "When America starts to kill its own children, we're in deep trouble."

"Ohio" was ultimately released as a single, with a sleeve depicting the Constitution punctured by four bullet holes — one for each Kent State University student gunned down by the National Guard on May 4, 1970. The song helped turn the tide against American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Performing "Teach Your Children" next, Nash noted that he believes the planet's problems are dire, but that it's still possible to "change the world/rearrange the world" for future generations. And he promised to continue "to speak my mind through music … as long as I'm on this side of the grass."

(Austin-based writer/editor Lynne Margolis contributes regularly to print, broadcast and online media including American Songwriter and Lone Star Music magazines. She also writes bios for new and established artists.)

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