Saturday, December 14, 2013

Oxford Town, Oxford Town

"How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?"

We often hear people talk about the 50's as the "good old days." In reality, the very things that were wrong in the 50's are what led to the upheavals of the 60's, no issue moreso than American racism.

The conflicts over race long preceded the Freedom Riders who put their lives on the line to draw awareness to this special problem of the Deep South. Poet/journalist Carl Sandburg shone a light on this issue when he wrote about the Chicago race riots of 1919 in which 38 people were tragically killed as a result of an incident that occurred on the segregated beachfront of Lake Michigan.

In a preface to the 1969 re-release of this volume Ralph McGill identifies WWI as one of the events that increased awareness of the racial divide. Black soldiers who put their lives on the line for America and freedom returned to the States as second class citizens.

World War II revived this same set of feelings for American blacks who served overseas only to return home to maltreatment and blatant injustice. The difference this second time around was the advent of television, by which means the rest of the country was made aware of the consequences of Jim Crow laws being enforced in the former Confederacy. Television not only made people aware of these problems, it also became a means for showing determined blacks the methods of non-violent resistance.

Dylan's song Oxford Town was written in October 1962 in response to a call for songs by Broadside magazine seeking songs about James Meredith and his attempt to attend Ole Miss, which was his constitutional right. The governor did everything in his power to prevent Meredith from entering the school as a student. Meredith refused to back down and put his life on the line in an effort to get the Kennedy's to respond to what was happening in the South.

Simultaneously the Kennedys were dealing with the Cuban missile crisis. Racial tensions and global tensions put tremendous pressure on JFK and Bobby who did everything in their power to keep the conflicts from escalating. The calls for action in Oxford were coming hard from Mississippi on the one hand and the calls for action from the Pentagon were being pressed from the other.

Oxford was a problem they both wanted to go away, but when riots broke out they ultimately took action and (according to Wikipedia, citing Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) called in 500 U.S. Marshals to take control, who were supported by the 70th Army Engineer Combat Battalion from Ft Campbell, Kentucky. They created a tent camp and kitchen for the US Marshals. To bolster law enforcement, President John F. Kennedy sent in U.S. Army troops from the 2nd Infantry Division from Ft. Benning, GA under the command of Maj. Gen Charles Billingslea and military police from the 503rd Military Police Battalion, and called in troops from the Mississippi Army National Guard.

It was during this time that Bobby Kennedy, while looking at a map asked first how far those Russian missiles could go, and followed up with, "Do you think one of those missiles could hit Oxford?"

It was against this backdrop that the young Dylan also penned A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, which appeared in 1963 on The Freelwheelin' Bob Dylan, his second album, and first to be all original material. Freewheeling is comprised of many songs that are now considered classics, opening with Blowin' in the Wind, followed by Girl from the North Country and Masters of War. Hard Rain is so dense that he purportedly stated that every line could be a song of its own. It's impossible for me not to hear the line "I saw a white man walking a black dog" as his indictment of America's unique form of racism.

It seems strange to many of us who lived up north to think blacks had been playing professional baseball for more than a decade, and my football hero Jimmy Brown had been playing for the Browns more than five years at this point. Growing up in white suburbia most of us in the north were oblivious to the realities of segregation. In this, and many other songs of that period, Dylan drew attention to that which we were failing to see.

Oxford Town

Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev’rybody’s got their heads bowed down
The sun don’t shine above the ground
Ain’t a-goin’ down to Oxford Town

He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town

Oxford Town around the bend
He come in to the door, he couldn’t get in
All because of the color of his skin
What do you think about that, my frien’?

Me and my gal, my gal’s son
We got met with a tear gas bomb
I don’t even know why we come
Goin’ back where we come from

Oxford Town in the afternoon
Ev’rybody singin’ a sorrowful tune
Two men died ’neath the Mississippi moon
Somebody better investigate soon

Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev’rybody’s got their heads bowed down
The sun don’t shine above the ground
Ain’t a-goin’ down to Oxford Town

Copyright © 1963 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music

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