Friday, May 6, 2022

Bob Dylan and the Civil Rights Movement, a Lecture by Steve Potts

Thursday night I went to see/hear Steve Potts' third Year of Dylan presentation. His previous two lectures, held at the Discovery Center in Chisholm, were on Dylan & the Beatles, and Dylan & the Vietnam War. Potts, who teaches at the community college on the Iron Range, is also an author, having published 150 children's books alongside his teaching career. 

Brian Simonson, a member of the committee involved in helping launch the St. Louis County Year of Dylan, welcomed the small but appreciative audience in attendance and introduced the speaker. The talk was dense with information, his style of delivery easygoing and authentic. 

Before diving into his theme Mr. Potts briefly touched on some personal stories that set up his lecture. Bob Dylan's presence at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington wasn't an aberration for Bob. In 1971 he participated--invited by his good friend George Harrison--in the Concert for Bangladesh, and later performed in the first globally broadcast concert for a cause, Live Aid. "Today everyone does concerts for charity," Potts said, noting these latter two events were groundbreaking.

In 1963 the times were indeed changing. The years leading up to the March on Washington included Freedom Rides, lunch-counter sit-ins, arrests and violence against Blacks who were striving to raise awareness regarding the injustices taking place. Southern Democrats were blocking the implementation of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and President Kennedy, fearing he would lose this voting block in the following year's re-election bid, did little to pressure the Southern Dems.

Black leaders from nearly all the major groups, decided to call for a March on Washington for jobs and an end segregation. The "Big Six" of this leadership coalition included Roy Wilkins, John L. Lewis, Whitney Young, James Farmer, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph. Washington DC was chosen primarily for its symbolic value.

Dr. Martin Luther King was insistent that there be no violence. (Malcolm X, who was not part of this event, called it "The Farce on Washington."

It's interesting that after the assassination of Dr. King, riots broke out in every major city in the U.S., except Minneapolis. Mr. Potts suggested that this was because Hubert Humphrey was mayor at that time. 

There were a lot of important people present that day. Jackie Robinson, James Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee and Sammy Davis, Jr. to name a few.

Joan and Bob. Post card on one of my cabinets.
How did Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary end up singing there? Evidently someone felt that by having these young White singers perform it would reach other young people.

In July, two weeks after Medgar Evers was shot, Bob, Pete Seeger and others went to Greenwood, Mississippi to perform on behalf of voter rights for Blacks, the cause for which Evers. had been killed. Potts said, "You've got to respect a man who put his career on the line for a cause." 

Afterwards, there were requests made for Bob to be a spokesperson for other causes and Dylan stepped back from being the front man for causes. He denied being the voice of a generation and refused to be anyone's pawn. He did not, however, stop writing songs that challenged and informed people with a conscience. 

At one point the speaker drew our attention to another Dylan song bout an event from the Sixties, Dylan's longest song. How long? 17 minutes. Mr. Potts noted that Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech is also 17 minutes. He then asked, "Coincidence?"

For me it immediately brought to mind other layers of meaning regarding the number 17, which I wrote about in this blog post about the Alhambra. Since then, 17 is among my favorite numbers, and these new connections only served to reinforce that impression.

Much more can be said about the evening, but for now I hope you've enjoyed reading about the flavor of the lecture. It was tasty. Thank you, Steve, for all you shared. The audience was engaged throughout. We look forward to seeing you again at Duluth Dylan Fest.

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