BLACK HISTORY AND MOTOWN MUSIC

Honoring the Legacy and Impact of America’s Civil Rights Movement

Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of the men and women who championed racial equity in the United States.

The project launched in 2013 as “His Dream, Our Stories” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech became a rallying cry for the movement. Today, Voices of the Civil Rights Movement presents more than 17 hours of gripping firsthand accounts, historical moments and stories submitted by the public.

While there are many stories, NAMIC Detroit is sharing the stories of Motown that are captured in the Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform as a focal point for Black History.  These stories tell the journey of how music communicates in a way that is different and transcends racial boundaries, through the lens of pioneering musicians who persisted in the face of discrimination.

Below are six Voices of the Civil Rights Movement segments highlighting Motown stories in an order that we believe takes you through the journey — from exploring Motown’s roots and the challenges encountered in distributing its music, to discrimination experienced during concert performances and travel, and concluding with the impact of Motown music on Americans of all backgrounds.

Voices of the Civil Rights Movement

Motown: Discrimination in the Music Industry

Miller London, former executive for Motown Records, talks about discrimination in the music industry. He said, "We couldn't put our artists on the cover of the albums. And that was because the songs were great, songs were on pop radio, but there was so many people that loved the music, bought the music, and didn't know that they were buying music that was recorded by black artists."

   

Motown: Color and Music

Paul Riser, former producer for Motown Records, grew up in Detroit. Regarding the culture of Motown, he said, "Berry Gordy ... didn't want songs that would just lean towards a particular culture, a particular community, he wanted songs that the world would embrace ... to this day, I don't see music as a color thing ... The only thing in music that is black and white are the notes in the page."

   

Motown: Racism in Radio

Clay McMurray, former producer for Motown Records, talks about racism in the radio industry. He recalls trying to get Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved A Man" played on a particular radio station. "The program director at the time told me, 'That record will never get programmed on this station.'" McMurray eventually persuaded him to play the record overnight, and the record became a huge hit.

 

Motown: Touring Musicians and Racial Discrimination

Joe Billingslea, founder of recording group The Contours, shares experiences of racism and discrimination Motown artists faced while touring the South. On performing in segregated theaters, the band was told to perform each song twice. He recalls, "You sing the first song to the white audience, then turn around, sing the same song to the black audience."

   

Motown’s Recording of ‘I have a Dream’

Joe Billingslea was in New York with The Contours during the Detroit Walk to Freedom, but returned to the city a few days later. He recalled hearing the engineers mastering the recording of the "I Have A Dream" speech recorded at the Walk. "We stopped, said 'Who is that Man, listen to that.' You know it was the voice and the way it was characterized," he said.

   

Motown: Message of Peace in Music

Pat Cosby, wife of Hank Cosby of the Funk Brothers and former employee for Motown Records, discusses Motown music and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She said, If you listen to a lot of Dr. Kings speeches ... there was always a comparison of music with the peace effort ... He referred to the black as the bass, the white as the treble and our lives as the keyboard.