The Civil Rights Movement at Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall

The Civil Rights Movement at Carnegie Hall
At the laying of its cornerstone in 1890, Andrew Carnegie said, “All good causes may here find a platform.” Seventy years later, when voices began protesting and singing out to be heard, Carnegie’s words rang true and the Civil Rights Movement became intertwined with the history of Carnegie Hall. Events at Carnegie Hall in the 1960s highlighted the struggle for civil rights and marked the importance of the Hall as a home for all causes. 
Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference 
By 1960, the Civil Rights Movement was well underway. Martin Luther King, Jr. created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 with a goal to use nonviolent protest as a means to increase awareness and reform. 

On January 27, 1961, Maya Angelou and Sammy Davis Jr. organized a benefit concert for Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC. Participating artists on the first half of the program included Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Carmen McRae, Sidney Poitier, and Joe Williams.

The program after intermission consisted of the “Rat Pack”: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Buddy Hackett, and Jan Murray (the latter two substituting for Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop).

The event raised more than $55,000 (the equivalent of nearly $450,000 today) and was featured in Ebony magazine.

The photos were taken by Moneta Sleet Jr.—the first African American photographer to win the Pulitzer Prize for his photo of Coretta Scott King at her husband’s funeral.

Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the SNCC Freedom Singers 
In 1960, after four African American students in Greensboro, North Carolina refused to leave a “whites only” lunch counter, sit-ins spread throughout the South. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed and gained national acclaim for their peaceful demonstrations. The SNCC and its Freedom Singers began traveling across the country in 1962.

As part of their national tour, the SNCC’s Freedom Singers performed at Carnegie Hall on June 21, 1963, with gospel singer and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson.

The Freedom Singers returned to Carnegie Hall on April 23, 1964 with Dick Gregory, one of the most outspoken African American comedians of his day, who took racism head on. Nina Simone was a last minute addition to the performance—she appeared for free, donating her performance.

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
Similar to the SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) also used nonviolent means of protest to initiate change. On June 9, 1963 the Queens College chapter of CORE held a benefit at Carnegie Hall, featuring Dick Gregory, Herbie Mann, Art Farmer, Jim Hall, Brock Peters, and more. 
Highlander Folk School, Pete Seeger, and “We Shall Overcome”
The iconic “We Shall Overcome” was not initially written as an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1945, Zilphia Horton, music director of the Highlander Folk School, heard “We Will Overcome” in Charleston, South Carolina, during a tobacco worker’s strike. She incorporated the song into the school’s songbooks and taught it to Guy Carawan, who became the school’s next music director. Carawan taught the song as a Freedom Song, and it quickly became a civil rights anthem.

By the 1950s, the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee had become a center for the growing Civil Rights Movement. In 1960, the State of Tennessee revoked Highlander’s charter, and music director Guy Carawan enlisted the help of Pete Seeger to organize a concert at Carnegie Hall to help raise funds for the school and associated attorneys’ fees. At the benefit event on February 10, 1961, the iconic anthem “We Shall Overcome” was heard for the first time in Carnegie Hall.

Pete Seeger performed “We Shall Overcome,” at his Carnegie Hall concert on June 8, 1963. This recording is considered by many historians to be a landmark event showcasing song as a means of political protest. The live recording is listed in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.

Nation of Islam and Louis X (Farrakhan) 
In the midst of the Civil Rights movement, The Nation of Islam (founded in 1930) and Malcolm X advocated for black pride and nationalism, believing that violence was justified if used in self-defense. Louis Farrakhan Sr. met Malcolm X in 1955 and took on the name Louis X, later the head of the Nation of Islam. 

Louis X composed and performed in “Orgena” (the words “a negro” spelled backwards)—a satire on blacks being integrated into white society. “Orgena” had two performances in Carnegie Hall: December 24, 1960 and May 14, 1961.

Josephine Baker: An Early Hero of the Civil Rights Movement 
One of the most famous black entertainers in the world, Josephine Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences and used her fame to help desegregate nightclubs. Baker made her Carnegie Hall debut on October 12, 1963. 
Nina Simone: Civil Rights Activist
Horrified by the 1963 murders of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and four young children at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama, Nina Simone composed “Mississippi Goddam” in less than an hour. She premiered the song in February, 1964, at the Village Gate nightclub, but it was her performance of that song at Carnegie Hall that changed her career. 

Simone’s 1964 Carnegie Hall performance was recorded live, and “Mississippi Goddam” was released as a single. It was banned in several states in the South, and hate groups purchased the recording in bulk in an attempt to destroy it. A year later, she sang the song in front of 10,000 people at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery.

W. E. B. DuBois and His Legacy 
Sociologist, writer, educator, and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois dedicated his life to the fight for racial equality. His centenary was celebrated in 1968, including a celebratory event at Carnegie Hall on February 23. 

Freedomways magazine presented the event titled “An International Cultural Evening” on February 23. Actor and playwright Ossie Davis served as master of ceremonies, and prominent actors, musicians, and writers gave performances, including Cynthia Belgrave, James Baldwin, Eleanor McCoy, and Pete Seeger.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the centennial address in what would be his last Carnegie Hall appearance. Here he is pictured at the reception following the performance with Mrs. DuBois Peck, the only granddaughter of W.E.B. DuBois.

On April 4, Duke Ellington was about to perform “His Concert of Sacred Music” when the announcement was made from the stage that Dr. King had been murdered.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy
On May 24, 1968 the Fellowship of Reconciliation held a tribute in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. titled “Composers and Musicians for Peace.” After the assassination, Coretta Scott King traveled across the country, representing her husband where he had been scheduled to speak or attending tributes in his honor, including this event.
The '60s: The Years that Changed America
Visit Carnegie Hall’s Rose Museum through April 30, 2018, to view many of these artifacts and others depicting 16 events chosen to represent the various social causes that used the Hall to raise funds and awareness in the 1960s.
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Images courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives.

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