By Mac Randall
During an interview about Pops Staples in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Staple Singers’ album Freedom Highway, Steve Cropper reflected on his unique perspective of the civil rights movement of 1965 as a member of a racially integrated band during this turbulent period. Look for the Pops Staples tribute in the upcoming May/June 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado.
On March 21, 1965, after more than two weeks of racial, political, and legal tension, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and approximately 3,200 black and white clergy and laypeople began a four-day march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery.
This was the third attempt that month at a protest march to draw attention to the fact that black Americans were being denied the constitutional right to vote in Alabama, as they were elsewhere in the segregated South. The first attempt had ended in brutal violence at the hands of police by the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, while the second had essentially led to a standoff in the same location.
But this time was different; protected by federal forces, the marchers kept going. For security reasons, only about 300 people marched the full 54 miles to Montgomery, but by the time the protesters reached the capital, their numbers had swelled to 25,000. Less than five months later, as a direct result of those marchers’ bravery, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Guitarist Steve Cropper was 23 years old, living and playing in Memphis, when the Selma march took place. Like his three bandmates in Booker T. & the M.G.’s, he was a child of the Jim Crow South. And yet those three bandmates— keyboardist Booker T. Jones, bassist Lewie Steinberg, and drummer Al Jackson¬, Jr.—were black, and he was white. (Steinberg would soon be replaced by another white musician, Donald “Duck” Dunn, finalizing the band’s most famous lineup.) The laws of segregation clearly didn’t apply inside the Stax recording studio, where the M.G.’s were the house band. “There was zero color at Stax, no prejudice, it was never talked about,” Cropper remembers. “Going there was like going to church. Everything in the outside world stayed outside.”
But when the band left the confines of Stax, it was another matter. “With Booker T. and the M.G.’s,” Cropper says, “we’d play some club somewhere in any of the major Southern cities, and…musically, everything was always great, but then after the show, we’d go downtown to check into a hotel and invariably they’d say, ‘Oh no.’ They had the rooms until we were there signing the register, and then it was, ‘No, no, you boys can’t stay here.’ So we’d say, ‘Okay, here we go with another one,’ and we’d have to drive out to the motels at the edge of town that just wanted the money. There was never any problem at those motels, and usually it was kind of better in a way, because we’d get up the next morning and be closer either to Memphis or wherever we were going for the next gig. So it didn’t seem to be a problem, and I don’t remember the guys ever complaining about that. It just didn’t happen that way.”
It may seem amazing to us now, but Cropper insists that both he and his colleagues rarely thought twice about the way things were in the South at that time. “When all of that started up with Martin Luther King and the sit-ins,” he recalls, “I wasn’t quite sure what that was about. Because we grew up, from when we were little kids, just accepting the fact that that drinking fountain over there was theirs and this one was ours. There was nobody protecting it, nobody actually saying, ‘Hey, you can’t come over here.’ It was just a way of life: You order your food at this window and I order my food at that window. We should have been made aware that something was wrong with that, but we weren’t aware of it until we were adults.”
Slowly, the example set by Dr. King and his followers began to make an impact on Cropper’s thinking. “Once I understood it, I was totally sympathetic with all of it,” he says. “And it did change the world, there‘s no question about it. It changed everything from what it was. A lot of people don’t like change. A lot of my colored friends didn’t like [integration] at all. It was like you were ruffling up their little mess kits: ‘This is my home, don’t you touch it!’ But they were made aware, like I was, that this was totally wrong and we needed to do something about it.”
We honor Cropper today as one of the greatest guitarists of the 20th century and, along with his fellow M.G.’s, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. And we also honor the bold spirits of all those, living and departed, who marched for freedom and equality 50 years ago.