The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner
Allies of the Civil Rights Movement: A Horizontal Leadership Model for Social Change
By Susan J. Erenrich and Carolyn Hester
Susan (Susie) J. Erenrich is a social movement history documentarian. She uses the arts for social change to tell stories about transformational leadership, resilience, and societal shifts as a result of mobilization efforts by ordinary citizens. Susie holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University and is the founder/executive director of the Cultural Center for Social Change. She has more than four decades of experience in nonprofit/arts administration, civic engagement, community service, and community organizing and has taught at universities, public schools, and community-based programs for at-risk, low-income populations. Currently a professor at American University, she is the editor of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change (a volume in ILA's BLB series). She is the producer/host of Wasn't That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation, a live community radio broadcast on WERA.FM. Listen on-demand or live every Friday from 1:00 - 2:00 PM Eastern time.
Carolyn Hester is a noted singer from the 60’s Greenwich Village Folk Scene. The “Texas Songbird,” has an expanded audience these days due to her steady re-emergence as torchbearer of the ‘60s folk movement. In 2009, Carolyn had her own BBC show, consisting of highlights from her BBC concert performance at London’s Barbican Theatre, titled, the “Folk America Series.” Besides her beautiful, expressive voice, she is known for her repertoire of original contemporary folk and traditional English ballads. She has recorded more than nineteen albums in her fifty years of performing. Hester appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post (May 30, 1964) and has been remembered in many books including Chronicles, Bob Dylan's autobiography, as being the person who was most instrumental in Dylan’s signing to Columbia records - the label that took an unknown singer-songwriter and elevated him to super-stardom. The Los Angeles Times requested Carolyn Hester to contribute an Op-Ed piece for their October 23, 2016 Sunday edition, asking her reaction to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Read her complete bio at the end of this article and learn more at www.carolynhester.com
Welcome! This issue of the Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner features my longtime friend, Carolyn Hester. In 1964, Carolyn was a member of the Mississippi Caravan of Music, a cultural arm of the Freedom Summer Project. She toured the Magnolia State for a short stint, along with other troubadours of conscience, supporting a dangerous frontline operation to break the back of the Jim Crow South. The caravan’s job was to support Movement foot soldiers and draw attention to the racist modus operandi perpetuated by Southern whites throughout the Black Belt region. Following Carolyn’s pilgrimage to Mississippi, she, along with other caravan artists, educated audiences through their lyrics and raised money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), and other groups that were fighting institutionalized segregation. They accompanied the freedom struggle in vital ways. Carolyn, and the other members of the caravan, were allies to Movement activists.
They played an important role. However, it was the day-to-day grueling laborious work by local grassroots leaders involved with SNCC, CORE, and COFO, that were responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, with assistance from their Northern friends. Local civil rights warriors were the decision makers. They were the strategists and tacticians. They encountered the routine ill-treatment and torment. They were in Mississippi for the long haul. Allies like Carolyn were there to bear witness to the cause.
Staughton Lynd (1997), the renowned historian and labor lawyer, called the alliance between the protagonist and the “professional” associate, accompaniment. Important in the concept of accompaniment is speaking out against injustice and sharing the journey with the protagonist wherever it may lead. It’s also important to note that the person being accompanied decides when the work is complete, not the associate doing the accompaniment. The concept of accompaniment originated with Archbishop Oscar Romero, a social justice worker who was assassinated in 1980 in El Salvador. It is a political theory, with roots in liberation theology, that empowers ordinary people to speak for themselves (Lynd, 1997, p. 6).
Carolyn, who hails from Texas, tells part of her story in this issue. She reflects upon those salient childhood moments that catapulted her into a life of cultural activism.
Carolyn’s column is accompanied by an episode of my radio show, Wasn’t That A Time, Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation, that originally aired on September 29, 2017. A few weeks before the broadcast went live, on September 16, 2017, Carolyn, her daughters, and many of her friends, gathered at the Peoples’ Voice Cafe in New York City for her 80th Birthday Bash. In typical Carolyn fashion, she didn’t want a party — she wanted to sing. So, after a bit of convincing, she allowed me to produce the show on one condition — that it would be a regular PVC performance that she shared with her daughters, Amy and Karla Blume. I agreed. Behind the scenes, however, I went about collecting tributes from longtime compatriots to read intermittently throughout the night. There was also one surprise guest. Listen to find out who!
I hope readers and listeners are moved by Carolyn’s piece below and the companion Wasn’t That A Time tribute. It is a modest glimpse into the life of a longtime advocate for social change.
Lynd, S. (1997). Living Inside Our Hope: A Steadfast Radical’s Thoughts on Rebuilding the Movement. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.
Lynd S. (2012). Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
Allies of the Civil Rights Movement: Notes From My Forthcoming Memoir
By Carolyn Hester
There are few books that I cling to as much as Susie Erenrich’s Freedom is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. It has proven to be a treasure to thousands of activists, professors, and students who have marched together to strengthen the United States’ stride towards freedom. You would think that the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation would have guaranteed the end of slavery, but President Lincoln was assassinated, and his momentum was thwarted. You would think that the North winning the American Civil War would have guaranteed the end of slavery, but it took many decades for Blacks to simply be granted the right to vote. As for me, I left home at eighteen to sing folk music, but it took me years to join the movement even though I was called to the cause early in life.
My parents, Gordon and Ruth, scooped me up when I was two and a half and we rode the train from Texas to Washington, D.C. as my Dad had been accepted at Georgetown University Law School. We lived at 641 “I” Street, not far from the Library of Congress. Eventually the house became part of the RFK Freeway, but then it was in Southeast D.C., and I attended Friendship House for preschool. My schoolmates and I were from everywhere.
Looking back, I realize I was an inner city kid. My neighborhood playmates and I met after school at the Salvation Army Shelter to play, dance, and sing. When my mom saw me singing Christmas Carols in the Salvation Army Choir, she was proud. One day I wasn’t there when she came to pick me up and was told that I had gone around the corner to my friend Berniece’s house.
When Mom got there, she discovered that lots of people were there and they were all dressed up. Mom might have been surprised to find that the family was Black and that they were having a wake due to the death of Berniece’s aunt. She was a lovely young woman laid out right there in a white silk-lined coffin. Instead of taking me and leaving, my mom sat down with us. Then Berniece asked her if I could stay a while because they were about to have cake and coffee.
Mom said, “Yes, of course. I’ll come back after I check on Carolyn’s baby brother.”
My brother, Dean had recently been born at Providence Hospital. Then it was on the corner, but now is no more than a plaque commemorating its past existence. When Mom returned she had Dean with her and so did not stay for coffee even though they invited her. As we walked home, I needed Mom to answer all my questions about what was “wrong” with Berniece’s aunt. It was my first knowledge of death.
As I grew up I realized that some parents would have fussed at me for going home with someone else, or for making friends with Black children, or they might have disapproved of my being near a dead person. Mother’s calm attitude, I’m sure, reinforced the open-mindedness I had towards all my schoolmates.
World War II was underway when my parents decided that my mother’s younger sister would take Dean and I home to Texas. So, our Aunt Lynette carried six-month-old Dean and a suitcase, while I carried my own small suitcase and scrambled to keep up with her. I was up for adventure and for riding the train again, but I did not fully realize the deep sadness Dean and I would experience without Mom and Dad.
Soldiers and Sailors swarmed the trains. On each train we got on, they would stand up and make a place for “Aunt Nettie” to sit with Dean on her lap. I might get a seat occasionally, but I was quite content to sit or sleep on the luggage rack, which was always located to your left as you boarded. It took up the space where a few seats might have been.
Dean and I loved our grandparents dearly. However, Dean developed asthma, which Grandma told me was because he missed Mama. Being part of the war effort like everyone else, Mom worked the night shift at the Bureau of Engraving in Washington, printing serial numbers on ten-dollar bills. Dad had his Georgetown studies as well as a job running and maintaining printing presses at the Navy Yard not far from I Street, N.E.
Grandpa and I were busy teaching Dean how to walk. My preschool was just across the street. I enjoyed my new friends, but they all looked just like me. While in Cameron, I saw the damage from a tornado, but it was another first that floored me. Since Grandpa was the County Surveyor of Milam County, Texas, they had enough money to hire a maid once a week. She was a wonderful Black woman named Jo.
Dean and I would have lunch with Jo in the kitchen. One day Grandpa appeared home early for lunch so both of my grandparents sat down at the dining room table. “We could all go sit together for lunch in the dining room today, okay?” I asked Jo. “No, little Miss. I can’t eat with the white folks,” she said.
It still hurts thinking about it.
Then she explained, “White folks won’t allow me to eat at the same table.”
I was just not understanding, but the look in Jo’s eyes communicated her message as if to say, “Believe me, little Miss, I am telling you the way it really is.”
And that is how a five-year-old came to be committed to the cause.
The Navy drafted my Dad, even though he was married with two children and in law school. The Navy just needed him the most, and pronto. He was assigned to the Officer Training School located at Harvard Yard in Cambridge. Mom came and got us and we lived in Brookline for six months. Then he was sent to more Signal Corps training at Alameda in the Bay Area. We lived in a San Francisco hotel for a while.
Then came the day Dad was to be shipped out. We went by train once more, this time to San Diego. My brother, Mom, and I went to the dock. Dad said he could take us small fry on the ship, but Mom would have to wait on the dock. Seems that as a grown-up she might be a spy. I was torn. Stay or go? But, Dad prevailed. The other sailors and officers also had their children with them. The ship was battleship gray and had bulkheads that could be sealed off in case she was to sink or have a fire. I’ll always be grateful I saw it. After Dad and his Signal Corps Team unloaded in Hawaii, the ship was loaded with the injured. However, they never made it home with that precious cargo as she was sunk somewhere between Pearl Harbor and San Diego.
Much later, in 1955, I arrived in Greenwich Village, which was to be my home on and off for eighteen years. I finally connected with the Civil Rights Movement through the Vietnam Anti-War Peace Marches. Pete Seeger was my hero. I had already traveled quite a lot, so I was not afraid to go places by myself, just me and my guitar. In 1957 I made my first album and it was released in 1958. My Dad had taught me how to type and if I had no club, coffeehouse, or concert to play, I could “play” the typewriter. I performed at college concerts and hopefully, helped spur the questions of the day.
In 1964 came the offer from folksinger/songwriter Gil Turner to go with him to play in the Mississippi Summer Caravan of Music. The Caravan was operated by The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), as part of the Voter Registration Drive. By that time, thanks to reading countless copies of The Village Voice, The New York Times, Time Magazine, and Newsweek, I realized my main function as an ally was to be a witness.
That same summer I stood next to Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlantic City as he encouraged the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in their attempt to be seated at the Democratic Convention. I enjoyed seeing MLK smiling for those gathered around him. Some of the Party were with Fannie Lou Hamer. None of them could get a hotel room in Atlantic City during the convention. The Party could only find shelter under the Atlantic City Boardwalk. That’s where they slept and organized. My great friend Patricia Mathis, who was producing the nighttime television performances at the convention, made it her business to locate food and deliver it to them.
My role at the convention was to sing for The Young Democrats, for Johnson & Humphrey — “Which Side Are You On, Boys, Which Side Are You On?” I met Dr. King’s associate, the great Aaron Henry there. Senator Birch Bayh was the featured speaker after I warmed them up with songs of the Movement.
In 2018, as we still endure an “Age of Uncertainty, Where Freedom Doesn’t Feel So Free,” I want to say to you, that I treasure you so much and want to help you keep the magnificent flame of freedom alive.
To allies everywhere, Dr. King’s lighting of the flame is never to be forgotten. There is nothing greater we can offer each other and humankind than to be vigilant in keeping that flame alive. Let neither circumstance nor negativity divide us in this “fierce emergency of now.”
Carolyn Hester Biography
Carolyn Hester is a noted singer from the 60’s Greenwich Village Folk Scene. She appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post (May 30, 1964) and has been remembered in many books including Chronicles, Bob Dylan's autobiography, as being the person who was most instrumental in Dylan’s signing to Columbia records - the label that took an unknown singer-songwriter and elevated him to super-stardom. The Los Angeles Times requested Carolyn Hester to contribute an Op-Ed piece for their October 23, 2016 Sunday edition, asking her reaction to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature.
The “Texas Songbird,” has an expanded audience these days due to her steady re-emergence as torchbearer of the ‘60s folk movement. In 2009, Carolyn had her own BBC show, consisting of highlights from her BBC concert performance at London’s Barbican Theatre, co-starring Hester, Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn, Eric Andersen and Billy Bragg titled, the Folk America Series. In 2010, Hester was included in the 90th Birthday Celebration for Ravi Shankar on Radio France. She also was featured in the documentary, For the Love of the Song, that debuted at the South By Southwest Film Festival in March of that same year.
Besides her beautiful, expressive voice, she is known for her repertoire of original contemporary folk and traditional English ballads. She has recorded more than nineteen albums in her fifty years of performing. Hester was signed to the Decca-Coral label in 1957 by her manager and producer, Norman Petty. Also under Petty’s influence at that time, was a hip entertainer and friend of Hester’s, Buddy Holly and to this day, she answers many requests to play the song he taught her, “Lonesome Tears.” Throughout the ‘60s, Hester was well established in the Greenwich Village folk scene where she met a young, Bob Dylan. Her two-album set, Carolyn Hester at Town Hall is one of the few live recordings of female folk singers in the 1960s. In that same time frame Carolyn was one of the leaders of the ABC-TV Hootenanny Show Boycott by American folksingers due to ABC banning Pete Seeger. Her deeply rooted passion for the Civil Rights Movement came to fruition in her participation in the Sixties Mississippi Caravan of Music, joining the fight for Voter Registration in that State and in the songs she presented at the August 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City when the effort to seat the Freedom Democratic Party was attempted.
Since 1972, Hester has played almost annually at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Kerrville, Texas and served as a member of the board of directors for most of that time. In 1992, Hester was asked to perform at the Bob Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden that celebrated Dylan's 30 years recording for Columbia with Bob himself performing with an international, all-star cast. Hester has appeared as a guest artist on many albums including the Grammy-Award winning album by Nanci Griffith, Other Voices, Other Rooms recorded in 1993.
In 2002, Hester was remembered as a major player in David Hajdu’s, Positively 4th Street due to her ties with Dylan, the folk scene in general, and her first marriage to Richard Farina. Carolyn is the first artist to record a “Tom Paxton Tribute” album, celebrating the music of her friend from Greenwich Village days. Professional record collectors are often seeking out a song called, “Majhires” written specifically for her by the great Indian Sitarist, Ravi Shankar, who also directed the session when Hester recorded it.
Her second husband, jazz pianist David Blume wrote the hit-song “Turn Down Day” by the Cyrkle and played as Hester’s sideman for more than 30 years before his passing in March of 2006. Blume and Hester’s two children, Amy and Karla Blume are both musicians and have taken over the role of Hester’s musical accompanists and songwriting partners. Hester and the Blume sisters are currently recording a new album and its release may coincide with that of a Memoir being written by Hester.
For more about CAROLYN HESTER, visit www.carolynhester.com