Since Iris Morales visited us last week, I have been thinking about the particular power of art to promote change and social justice. Ms. Morales clearly believes that art is a key part of any social movement. It is not ancillary, but rather has its own unique and necessary role to play. I think that we are often overly optimistic about the power of art to bring about social change. However, I want to highlight a group that indisputably had an effect on a social justice movement: The Staple Singers.
The Staple Singers were composed of Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his children Mavis, Pervis, Cleotha, and Yvonne. They initially performed as a gospel ensemble, but in 1963 Pops Staples met and befriended Martin Luther King Jr. The Staple Singers began writing and performing “freedom songs” at civil rights marches and rallies. Their 1965 song “Freedom Highway” was inspired by the famous march on Selma, Alabama.
What is most interesting to me about this song is that it takes a tragic and violent event and turns it into a reason for uplift and inspiration. I think this gets at why the Staple Singers were such an important part of the civil rights movement, and why their music was so successful. Their music is affirmative, uplifting and inspiring rather than confrontational. They were able to energize crowds and bring hope to an extremely difficult situation.