Jane Russell, reviewing Stuart Cosgrove “Memphis 68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul,” Polygon Press Oct. 2017
This book is the middle section of a critically acclaimed sixties ‘soul’ trilogy by Australian-Scot Stuart Cosgrove, award winning broadcaster for Channel 4 and long-time writer for UK music media, Echoes and New Musical Express. It follows on from Detroit 67: The Year that Changed Soul and anticipates the forthcoming Harlem 69: The Future of Soul (October 2018).
Made up of 19 chapters with a Foreword and Epilogue, the book runs to approx 300 pages. The bibliography testifies to Cosgrove’s extensive and in-depth research. But the core of the book, the hinge on which it is secured, is the assassination in Memphis on April 4th 1968, 50 years ago, of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. after he had delivered the speech of his career – and his last. If you are a casual observer of modern American politics and culture who wants to better understand the meaning of the Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives movements, of apparently random killings of black men by white police and sporadic school shootings by crazed white teenagers and young adults – this is the book for you.
Cosgrove effortlessly takes the lid off American culture – black and white. You will learn that American culture has a genetically racist structure : for example, in Memphis in 1968, even blood banks were segregated: blood donated by blacks only went into black people’s veins and blood donated by whites went only into white people’s veins! This Hitlerian view of racial hierarchies helps explain why authoritarian Donald Trump has striven to develop a personality cult among his followers. His posturing as the saviour of “white (working class) America,” in direct contrast to Barrack Obama’s seemingly middle-class liberal democratic “black” Presidency, has enabled him to drive forward racist agendas in trade and immigration. But beneath the belligerently segregationist, militarist and economically exploitative strata in north American society, Cosgrove has revealed a love of music, including soul, gospel, blues, jazz and rock, that integrated young whites and blacks in1968 Memphis and may yet unite young Americans today.
One gets the impression that this book was written at great speed. It feels as if it has been driven by the relentless percussion of Al Jackson Jr, drummer of the celebrated black/white group, Booker T. and the MG’s. Their famous hit “Time is Tight” (available on You Tube) would make a good soundtrack for the narrative. But there are downsides for such a rapid write: one is occasional, annoying typos; another is that some acronyms, such as MG’s (it stands for Memphis Group – never explained) and MPD ( which I only realised stood for Memphis Police Department after I’d finished reading), are not spelled out clearly. But I don’t want to harp on these odd proofreading errors – they are mere bagatelles in the whole story.
Far more important is that we are treated to wonderful nuggets of information: for example that Mahalia Jackson, the saintly but financially astute gospel singer, sold her name for a fast food franchise called Glori-Fried Chicken; that the romantically inclined Martin Luther King spent the last few hours of his last night with a lover, Senator Georgia Davis Powers, to whom he whispered as they went along the corridor to her room, “Senator, our time together is so short” ; that Lorre Bailey, the 52 year old wife of the owner of the Lorraine Motel on whose balcony Martin Luther King was assassinated, collapsed from shock in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and died of a cerebral haemorrhage on the same day as Dr. King. We learn that Clarksdale, Mississippi, a former slave town where black families were brutalised and then forced to leave when machinery replaced hand-picking of cotton, produced soul singers Sam Cooke and Ike Turner and blues troubadors John Lee Hooker and Son House.
All the time, we are made aware of iconic images that made 1968 a pivotal year in the second half of the 20th century: the Paris student uprising, observed at first hand by Booker T. Jones; the slaughterhouse of the Vietnam War; the Black Power movement and “Burn, baby, burn” riots in black urban ghettoes throughout America; the solemn and noble faces of sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos, heads bowed and black gloved fists held aloft as the ‘Stars and Stripes’ was slowly raised to the US national anthem at the Mexico Olympics.
And in the background, we hear the music of the white-owned and black- managed Stax records: “Green Onions”; “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”, “Knock on Wood”, “Soul Man”, “Private Number”, “Son of a Preacher Man” and the theme from “Shaft”. This was the ‘Memphis sound’ that the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield and Janis Joplin so revered. And through it all, we appreciate that this city of celebrated black and white musicians – of Muddy Waters, the Platters, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Al Green, B.B King, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. and the MG’s – this city MEMPHIS whose striking sanitation workers (dustmen to you and me), all of whom were black, worked for a pittance in horrendous filth and had neither workers’ rights nor safety protection, yet had the chutzpah to walk along Memphis’ main street in silent single file in March 1968, each wearing a poster stating I AM A MAN followed by tanks peopled by white members of the National Guard. And that this is the same city that brought Martin Luther King to his death.
Arriving in Memphis to support the city’s sanitation strikers in early April, King delivered a speech in the middle of an electric storm that spawned tornados as well as terrifying claps of thunder and bolts of lightning. At first King was fearful of the thunderclaps that resounded around the packed hall of the Mason Temple in Memphis: he had received a number of increasingly explicit death threats in the weeks leading up to this night. He openly flinched whenever windows banged under pressure of wind and rain. But he experienced catharsis as he spoke, unscripted words flowing from his brain and heart. Finally, he arrived at his peroration – (I quote here from the book):
“‘Something is happening in Memphis,’ he said in his sonorous foreboding tone, ‘something is happening in our world. And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the coloured peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live along life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight., that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.'”
The next evening, as he emerged onto the balcony from his upstair Room 306 in the Lorraine Motel, Martin Luther King was shot with a single bullet from a Remington Gamesmaster .30-06 rifle. At 7.05pm America’s black Moses was dead.
* Deneen L Brown: “A Cry for Freedom: ….,” 16 October 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2018/10/16/a-cry-freedom-black-power-salute-that-rocked-world-years-ago/