In 2008, the Song of the Year Was a 45-year-old Soul Classic

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BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / DEC. 23, 2008

When Aretha Franklin takes to the stage at President Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, it would be fitting if she were to serenade him and his guests with the late Sam Cooke’s anthemic “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.

Appropriate for her, since she recorded a searching, pleading, transcendently Gospel-derived version for her breakthrough Atlantic Records album of 1967, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. That’s the album that contained “Respect” and indeed brought her respect as the Queen of Soul, a designation so powerful she was just chosen by Rolling Stone the greatest singer of the Rock era. (Cooke, incidentally, ranked fourth.)

But it’s also appropriate for Obama. During 2008, the song has come to represent not just his quest to become President — the nation’s first African-American one — but also to bring about a better, post-Bush America once he’s in office. And the success of his campaign has come to signify the whole arc of the civil rights movement, from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to the White House.

Throughout the year, as Obama’s quest gained ground, the song also gained renewed momentum — versions kept showing up on albums by veterans like Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and newcomers like Americana singer Ben Sollee and Jazz horn player Anat Cohen. It was as if there was a willed, telepathic connection between it and the campaign. It even made it to American Idol.

Arcade Fire, early Obama supporters, started performing it in concert. A version of the band doing it live during an Obama benefit at Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville, Ohio (near Athens) made it to YouTube before being removed over copyright issues.

Not that Obama was quick to embrace Cooke’s song, however. He at first seemed to want to maintain distance from its symbolic implications that his campaign was a logical evolution of the civil rights movement. Instead of playing it at the conclusion of his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Denver, where its use would have been striking, he instead chose the raucously patriotic Brooks & Dunn Country tune, “Only in America.”

But at his election-night victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park, Obama seemed to embrace the song. He almost directly quoted from it when he said, “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight change has come to America.”

The connection finally made explicit, Seal then recorded “Change” as the lead cut on his new Soul album. It’s a beautifully sung version, his voice remarkably close to the bittersweet warmth of Cooke’s, but it’s marred by a production (by David Foster) that turns bombastic toward the end. It didn’t take long for someone to set images and excerpts of Obama’s acceptance speech to Seal’s version and post it on YouTube.

There are some terrific cover versions of the song out there. Besides Franklin, such great African-American singers as Tina Turner, Al Green, Aaron Neville, Patti LaBelle, Otis Redding and Baby Huey & the Babysitters have performed it. So, too, have many rockers. (YouTube has video of an arrestingly bluesy live version by the alternative-folk-rocker Will Oldham/Bonnie “Prince” Billy, performed last month at Lexington’s Old Tar Distillery.)

Long a huge star for the friendly mellifluousness of his voice (“Cupid,” “Bring It on Home to Me,” “Twistin’ the Night Away”), Cooke was first and foremost a Pop star. Although he came out of gospel, he wasn’t thought of in the same way as the more Gospel- and Blues-derived Deep Soul African- American singers of the era, like Solomon Burke or James Brown.

So “Change” represented a change for him. Cooke wrote the song in 1963 and recorded it in December of that year, moved by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and his own observations of the heated fight then going on to end segregation in America.

Cooke, according to Peter Guralnick’s biography Dream Boogie, wrote it while on a tour of the South, then a civilrights battleground. He had been arrested in Shreveport for trying to stay at a segregated hotel.

His gorgeously melodic, sensitively arranged version came out on the Ain’t That Good Newsalbum in April 1964. But it wasn’t released as a single until late December 1964, several weeks after he was shot and killed under mysterious circumstances by a female motel manager in Los Angeles. He was just 33.

Even then, his record label released it as a B-side to the dance tune “Shake.” But “Change” eventually climbed into the lower reaches of the national Top 40, Cooke’s last major hit. It was recognized at the time as a political statement — not common in the Top 40 but not unheard of, either, in a time when “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Kingston Trio’s anti-nuclear “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and the Impressions’ “Keep on Pushing” were also hits.

“Change” probably initially garnered attention for the unexpectedness of Cooke’s world-weary voice on chillingly prophetic lyrics, “It’s been too hard livin’ but I’m afraid to die/I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky.”

But the broader message was not lost. And it has only grown with time.

“He took all of those experiences,” Guralnick told NPR, “but he enlarged upon them and he broadened them to the point that the song … becomes a statement of what a generation had had to endure.”

(2018 UPDATE: Bettye LaVette sang the song in a duet with Jon Bon Jovi at the first inaugural concert for President Obama.)

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Cincinnati responds to MLK’s call to walk from Selma

Fifty years ago this month, prompted by the March 7 “Bloody Sunday” police attack on non-violent African-American marchers in a Voting Rights campaign in Selma, Ala., Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called for “religious leaders from all over the nation” to come to Selma to help in the campaign to end the state-sanctioned racist roadblocks to black voting

That call resonated in Cincinnati, especially but not exclusively among religious leaders. Pro-civil rights secular activists, black and white, also rallied support. “We all knew each other,” said Tom Luken, a Democrat who was then a City Council member and went to Selma. (He later became mayor and a U.S. Representative.)

And they had key support from the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a close ally of King’s who had moved to Cincinnati from Birmingham in 1961 to be pastor of the West End’s Revelation Baptist Church. (He died in 2011.)

But he had stayed active in the long, early-1960s struggle to end segregation in Birmingham, and had been in Selma off and on in 1965, according to Andrew Manis, author of the Shuttlesworth biography, “A Fire You Can’t Put Out.”

Shuttlesworth flew here from Birmingham on March 13 to lead a march in support of Selma protestors that drew 5,000 people. It had the support of the Catholic Interracial Council, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, First Unitarian Church and the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council.

But the key event for local activists occurred on March 21, when some 13 of them left Lunken Airport early in the morning for Selma to participate in that day’s start of the long-delayed march to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. It was the culmination of the Selma campaign. The Cincinnati contingent walked for several hours that day, and then returned home as planned – but not before a scare – that evening.

Looking at files from The Enquirer and American Jewish Archives at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), as well as talking to some of those who went to Selma from Cincinnati, there emerges somewhat contradictory or at least incomplete information about that journey.

That might partly be because, as participant Yvonne Robertson (wife of Cincinnati Royals basketball star Oscar Robertson) said, “With something that important and traumatic, you forget things.”

A March 21, 1965, Enquirer story about the participation of Robertson and Terry Embry (wife of another Royal star, Wayne Embry) on the charter flight said that Rev. Richard Isler of Cincinnati Council of Churches worked with University of Cincinnati Professor Robert Hoover to organize it.

Those who were coming – besides Robertson, Embry and Hoover – were listed as UC Professor Sherwin Cooper; UC faculty member James Gordon; campus ministers John Clark and Ann Drake; Rabbi Albert Goldman of Wise Temple; Rev. David Mills of Our Saviour Episcopal Church; Rev. Clinton Reynolds of Ninth Street Baptist Church; UC librarian Jan Gustke; and UC students Harrison Sims and Gene Wilson.

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But Luken said that William Bowen – the local NAACP head who would become a Democratic state representative and senator – and Abe Goldhagen – a NAACP activist who owned the Wein Bar in Avondale – contacted him about the flight.

In a 1981 Enquirer interview with Goldhagen, who like Bowen is now deceased, he said, “The group that went to Selma, Ala., for a freedom march in the 1960s gathered at the bar the night before.”

Robertson remembers Luken and Bowen aboard the flight, but also mentions Rabbi Victor E. Reichert of Rockdale Temple.

American Jewish Archives files mention that two other Cincinnati rabbis came later in March – Charles Mintz of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and Murray Blackman of Rockdale Temple. Also going at some point was Norbert Samuelson, director of University of Cincinnati’s Hillel organization. And a local Unitarian historian said that the minister of St. John’s Unitarian Church in Clifton, Clark Wells, rushed to Selma soon after a Unitarian minister, James Reeb, was attacked by racists there on March 11 and died on March 13.

When the Cincinnati group flew into Selma on March 21, they at first didn’t find a ride waiting for them. Here again, memories differ. Luken remembers the group being picked up by a well-known Cincinnati activist already in Selma, the late Lucy Green, known for her red hair. She had driven to Selma earlier with Marjorie Parham, publisher of Cincinnati Herald, at Shuttlesworth’s request.

But Parham says it was actually her who picked up the Cincinnatians at the airport – at least as many as would fit in her car. “Lucy and I drove down (earlier) and we worked helping to feed people and house people, because Selma isn’t a very large town,” Parham said. “When the marching actually started, we came home.”

On the first day of the 54-mile Selma-to-Montgomery march, the Cincinnatians were supposed to take a bus from the designated stopping point to a flight home from Montgomery. But the ride wasn’t there. “We found somebody who had a truck and we rented it,” Luken recalled. “That was a very interesting ride. It was an open truck. We stood.”

It’s estimated that 25,000 marchers – blacks and whites, clergy and secular supporters – were on hand at the 54-mile march’s conclusion on March 25. And they heard Shuttlesworth speak before King did. Referring to the Alabama State Capitol that was the seat of political power in Alabama, he said, “Our goal is not out here, but in there where Jefferson Davis stood.”

There was another important Cincinnati connection to the Selma to Montgomery march. An Associated Press photograph shows a goateed, white-haired man between Shuttlesworth and King in the procession – all are wearing Hawaiian lei.

He is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who at the time taught at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary and was nationally known. Born in Poland in 1907 and educated in Germany before being deported back by the Nazis, he escaped the Holocaust in 1940 because the president of HUC, Julian Morgenstern, fought to get U.S. visas for him and ten other college professors, plus five rabbinical students, to come from Europe to the school’s Cincinnati campus.

Heschel taught here through the war years. He also met his future wife in Cincinnati, before moving to New York in 1946.

“My father always raised me with a feeling that HUC had made my life possible by saving his, and I grew up knowing the name of Julian Morgenstern as someone very special,” said his daughter, Susannah Heschel, who teaches Jewish studies at Dartmouth College. “His name was always spoken with awe in our household.”

Freedom fighter Marian Spencer fights on

At 95, Marian Spencer is anything but quietly retired.

Cincinnati’s longtime civil rights advocate, voice of conscience and its first African-American woman elected to City Council came home after a summer away in Indiana and, not so quietly, entered the civic fray once again.

Spencer, who most know as a staunch city parks supporter, made it clear she was no fan of the parks levy. A new property tax, she believed, should not be codified into a Charter amendment. And she should know. Spencer had been a member of the city’s good-government Charter Committee for 75 years. Her late husband, Donald, had also been a legendary parks supporter.

Spencer’s opposition to Mayor John Cranley’s parks plan, then, made headlines and was one reason, some say, the levy failed. That kind of clout doesn’t come without a lot of preface. It’s been a long journey, said Spencer, one chronicled most recently in Dorothy H. Christenson’s “Keep on Fighting: The Life and Civil Rights Legacy of Marian A. Spencer.”

 The first volume of that work – some 25 copies – were printed in 2012 and distributed as Christmas gifts to family and friends. The personal stories of Spencer’s life were worth more than that, Christenson thought, and deserved a wider audience.

The expanded version of “Keep on Fighting” was published by for Ohio University Press. The book is widely available.

Spencer’s good-natured, optimistic personality and love for her late husband is evident throughout. He, too, was a civil-rights activist and NAACP member and civic leader, as well as a teacher and realtor. They married in 1940; he died at age 95 in 2010.

 Her story is a triumphant one, but her remembrances of life in Cincinnati, recounted in the book, form a history of the pervasiveness of Queen City racism. Spencer tells how segregation wasn’t just a Southern thing – it was an accepted fact of life in “polite” society in Cincinnati and elsewhere.

 

She and twin sister Mildred were born and raised in the Ohio River city of Gallipolis, where their parents – Harry and Rosanna Alexander – lived above a general/hardware store that they owned. There were also two brothers, the older Harry Jr. and the younger Vernon (known as Mac). The girls were inseparable and loved school. Their family stressed education. Gallipolis had a history of accepting black citizens, but it also had segregation.

And it had the Klan.

Not just a Southern problem

In 1928, the Ku Klux Klan marched through town, right past the store. “I’ll never forget we had a balcony on the second story,” Spencer said. “Dad took me and my twin sister to the balcony at night – we didn’t have street lights. Here were these men marching down the middle of our street with their faces totally covered, full Klan outfits, flaming tapers.

“Dad said, ‘Girls, look. These men are white men. And they’re trying to scare you. You don’t have to be afraid of them.’ ”

Their mother chose University of Cincinnati for Marian and Mildred, as they could live with a cousin in the city. They arrived in 1938. As students at UC, African-Americans faced numerous restrictions.

“Mildred and I couldn’t take swimming when we were students. We had to take modern dance,” Spencer recalls in the book. “On Friday afternoons the dance teacher would unlock the pool to give black students our only opportunity to swim on campus.” (In 1975, Cincinnati’s first African-American mayor, Ted Berry, appointed her to the UC Board of Trustees.)

She also recalls the “sundown towns” like Mariemont – suburban cities surrounded by or surrounding Cincinnati – where blacks weren’t welcome after dark.

Perhaps her greatest fight in Cincinnati involved integrating Coney Island, the “beloved” amusement park on the Ohio River. In 1952, her sons – 10-year-old Donald Jr. and 8-year-old Edward – were watching “The Uncle Al Show,” a local children’s program, when he said “Everyone come to Coney Island.”

They wanted to go.

“I went to the kitchen and closed the door and had a telephone conversation with a girl (at Coney Island),” she said in the interview. “I said, ‘We are Negroes’ and there was a long silence. Then she said, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t come. But I don’t make the rules.’ I said, ‘I know you don’t, but I’ll find out who does.”

Head of the NAACP’s Legislative Committee at the time, she convinced a young black attorney, Michael Turpeau, to take her case against Coney Island. “I said we’ve got to do something about this because children couldn’t fight for themselves,” she said.

The amusement park was owned by powerful business people, Edward Schott and Ralph Wachs, and the legal battle was tense. Black and white protesters both tried to buy admission tickets to establish the park’s pattern of intentionally barring African-Americans. Some of those were women, because men feared losing their jobs. Besides the NAACP, protesters came from the Woman’s City Club of Greater Cincinnati, where Spencer had been among the first African-American members.

“They were people in a system they didn’t like and knew was wrong, and they supported me because they knew they were fighting for their right as well as mine,” Spencer said of those women.

Although the original suit was settled in favor of integration, it only applied to the portion of Coney Island in Hamilton County. Progress was slow. The Spencers knew that all too well.

The family loved to travel America by car during the summer when Donald, a teacher for 18 years, was free. But they carried with them the Negro Motorist Green-Book, so they could plan where to stay, dine and shop.

It was frequently infuriating, as when she discovered that Salt Lake City’s Mormon Tabernacle Choir – affiliated with a major American religion – had segregated seating. She didn’t attend a concert, though her husband took the boys. “I was so angry at the fact they would have segregation out there,” she said. “It was a big deal – I didn’t want to sit in the back.”

Facing segregation strengthened her resolve to fight it. “They said if you have one drop of black blood, you’re black legally. And I thought to myself, ‘If it’s that valuable, why should I disown that?’ ”

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com