U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Has Anybody Here Seen My Old Friend Martin?

This semester I am teaching an African American History course, and today’s lecture was about the differences between the two understandings of the civil rights movement—the standard one that is part of the American civil religion, often referred to as the “classical” or “heroic” period; and, as Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and Kevin Mattson have called it, the “harder” history of the “long civil rights movement,” a history that fits much less easily into nationalist pieties of progress and respectability.

This was a poignant lecture because of today’s date: April 4th is the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis in 1968 (see Robert’s post yesterday). And all yesterday and today as I reviewed and revised my notes, and especially as I re-read Hall’s essay “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,”[1] what ran through my head was a little saccharine ditty from August 1968, Dion’s “Abraham, Martin, and John.” Written as a tribute to King and Robert Kennedy—who had also been assassinated in June—it lined them up with Bobby’s brother and Abraham Lincoln as fallen icons of racial justice and compassion. An extremely simple song with a haunting melody, each verse went something like this:

Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?

Can you tell me where he’s gone?

He freed a lot of people

But it seems the good die young.

I just looked around and he’s gone.

The song was very popular and it must have had an impact on my father—who was, I believe, an eleven-year-old in ‘68—for it was through this song that he first described the civil rights movement to me when I was probably five or six, singing it from memory.

To have first come to an understanding of the civil rights movement through an earnest if also commercialized folk-pop single is a mark of the privilege I grew up with and still hold; it is unlikely that my story is very common, and there are many children who, well before they turned five or six, would have come into contact with some force whose blunt edges forced a more painful reckoning with the reasons why there was a song about King in the first place.

But I thought about this song particularly as I considered Hall’s argument about the sources of the “dominant narrative [of] a short civil rights narrative… confining the civil rights struggle to the South, to bowdlerized heroes, to a single halcyon decade [1954-1965], and to limited, noneconomic objectives” (1234). While she acknowledges that the master narrative “has multiple sources,” she “emphasizes how the movement’s meaning has been distorted and reified by a New Right bent on reversing its gains” (1235).

Reworking that narrative [the mostly journalistic “rough draft of history”] for their own purposes, these “color-blind conservatives” ignored the complexity and dynamism of the movement, its growing focus on structural inequality, and its “radical reconstruction” goals. Instead, they insisted that color blindness—defined as the elimination of racial classifications and the establishment of formal equality before the law—was the movement’s singular objective, the principle for which King and the Brown decision, in particular, stood. They admitted that racism, understood as individual bigotry, did exist—“in the distant past” and primarily in the South… But after legalized Jim Crow was dismantled [the New Right narrative concluded], such irrationalities diminished to insignificance. In the absence of overtly discriminatory laws and with the waning of conscious bias, American institutions became basically fair. If stark group inequalities persisted, black attitudes, behavior, and family structures were to blame. (1237)

All of this is unimpeachably true. And yet my experience with “Abraham, Martin, and John” suggests to me that Hall’s account of the appropriation of the spirit of the black freedom struggle by the New Right explains both too much and too little. Even considering her acknowledgment of the “multiple sources” of the dominant narrative of the short civil rights movement, Hall doesn’t really allow for the way that the New Right’s revision of civil rights as color-blindness depended very extensively on the prior success of ostensibly benign interpretations like “Abraham, Martin, and John.” It is difficult for me to believe that, in the absence of this kind of anodyne, pious treatment of the CRM, color-blind conservatives would have found such success with their revisions. The priority of interpreters like Dion matters.

And yet it is also a mistake, I think, to treat something like “Abraham, Martin, and John” as simply a “rough draft of history,” as I suspect many historians would be inclined to do. Even though it was released with impressive speed (RFK was shot in June; the record was pressed in August), the song was more than journalism on a turntable. The Wikipedia article on the song notes quite a number of covers of the song from 1969 through 2003. What is more, the song’s modest and even unlikely origins—Dion was not exactly a folk troubadour, and the songwriters were previously most famous for a novelty single about Snoopy—did not stop the song from evidently touching a wide range of artists: Wikipedia lists (among others) Andy Williams, Marvin Gaye, Moms Mabley, Smokey Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Leonard Nimoy, Bob Dylan, Whitney Houston, Paul Weller, and Tori Amos as having covered the song. Pointing out the obvious: unless we’re going to be entirely cynical, the presence of a number of those names suggests that, while the song was lightweight, it carried a certain amount of meaning for a broader audience than just white moderates.

So when my father sang these simple verses to me and explained who Abraham, Martin, John, and Bobby were and what the song meant, he taught me a simplified, sanitized narrative that required that very counternarrative of the “long civil rights movement” to correct. But he also opened a vein of genuine connection to a kind of primary experience of the shock and trauma of King’s murder, a connection which, unbeknownst to me, many had felt and processed, at least in part, by listening to this song. Even if it had unwittingly written the first draft of the recension of King’s life by the New Right, the song also did its own thing. And that, I think, is worth noting.

[1] Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” JAH 91.4 (March 2005): 1233-1263. This essay was originally Hall’s presidential address at the 2004 OAH convention. Robert Greene II covered some of the more recent responses to the “long civil rights movement” framework for the USIH blog here.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks so much for this post, Andy. Two things:

    1. I confess to total ignorance of Dion’s music before your post. I looked up the song on Spotify before seeing that you put it at the bottom of the post. In the process of learning more about Dion I came across this in his Spotify biography: “Dion signed to Instant Records in 2015 and immediately set to recording a new studio album. Entitled ‘New York Is My Home’, its first single and title track a duet with Paul Simon was pre-released in November digitally and as a striking video. The album was issued in the winter of 2016.”

    2. You wrote: “The song was very popular and it must have had an impact on my father—who was, I believe, an eleven-year-old in ‘68—for it was through this song that he first described the civil rights movement to me when I was probably five or six, singing it from memory.”

    When I was that age, in 1976-77, recall my father singing Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” (released in late 1977) and other assorted deep ditties. Sigh. This may explain why my arc of enlightenment about the world, its social issues, and its politics has been overly long. 🙂 – TL

    • My dad is also a big Meat Loaf fan! He was really excited when he thought I was old enough to listen to that song.

  2. A note on color-blindness: This is not something made up by conservatives, it was a step in the civil rights movement. For example, Massachusetts as an anti-discrimination measure enacted a ban on requiring racial identification or photos on college applications; this has sometimes caused problems in the era of affirmative action.

    • This may be a matter more of semantics than of substance, but it seems to me that the colorblindness of this measure is vastly different in intent from the colorblindness of the conservative revision of King’s ideas.

      Colorblindness for the conservative is about the removal of all policies that take race into account, not just ones that disadvantage people of color. I would need to know more about this MA measure, but it seems to me that banning photos and racial identification could still be coupled with minority recruitment and even quota-based affirmative action. One admissions officer could be responsible for increasing the number of minority students applying, while other parts of the admissions office are effectively “blind” to which applicants have been recruited and which haven’t.

      It seems to me that such a strategy would not be considered “color-blind” by affirmative action opponents, and that the logic of color-blindness (in the conservative version) doesn’t have much room for an acknowledgment that these kind of measures are still necessary.

  3. Thanks for this post, Andy; I know this song very well, since I was an odd kid and refused to listen to anything but oldies until I was in high school, I grew up being very familiar with it.

    I am wondering, though, why the song and its lyrics necessarily has to dovetail with the classical narrative of the CRM; growing up, I took it to be a sad reflection on the apparent fact that standing up for what is right is often a dangerous thing to do. As your list of people who covered it might attest to, it seems many people experienced this way as well. So, while I get how it *could* be plugged into colorblind nonsense, does it necessarily do that?

    • I think the main thing I felt played into that narrative was the way MLK is subordinated to an American exceptionalist narrative which is not explicitly about race, but rather about a sort of undefined expansion of freedom. “He freed a lot of people…” seems to me to be a kind of dodge, using the simplicity of the song to skirt the issue of who was being freed and from what.

      But as I said, I think it is also more than that, and your interpretation–that “standing up for what is right is often a dangerous thing to do”–captures the dimension that mattered most to me as well, and to a lot of other people. I was trying to understand here how these dimensions fit together in a way that belies Hall’s assumption that a long civil rights narrative means one thing politically, and a short civil rights narrative means another thing politically, that they have single political valences, rather than multiple. And your response is a perfect example of the way that works, I think!

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