Many music historians now credit the Bee Gees with single-handedly reviving disco in the late 1970s to make it the dominant musical genre we know today.
The modern civil rights movement began and ended with edicts by two “Kings.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963 launched it, while Rodney King’s “Can We All Get Along?” television message on May 1, 1992 ended it.
It was three decades of “movement” that abolished segregated schools, housing, bus seating, bathrooms, hotels, parks and other public spaces for black America. King’s “Dream” put Southern “Jim Crow” Democrats on notice, including their feared terrorist organization: the Ku Klux Klan. For decades the KKK executed justice while southern Democrat politicians kept blacks from exercising their basic civil rights, from the right to vote to where they lived.
These white robed and hooded KKK thugs burned crosses, torched homes…and lynched.
According to the Tuskegee Institute, there were 4743 lynchings between 1882 and 1968 in 44 different states. A quarter of these lynchings were white Americans. That’s because the Southern Democrats and the KKK also lynched Republicans, Roman Catholics, Jews and other foreigners. The last black man lynched in America was a 19-year old kid named Michael Donald, found hanging in a Mobile, AL tree on March 21, 1981.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fearless rhetoric on August 28, 1963 sent a clear message that all lives mattered:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Did King’s speech end racism in America? Absolutely not. Cultural racism remains an issue to this day. But his speech and work eventually produced the end of institutional racism, that is the use of coordinated, public and political means (including “southern justice”) to keep black Americans segregated, oppressed and fearful. To win over white America–particularly its religious culture–King (a Southern Baptist minister) used the new medium of television to point a camera at southern inequality and injustice.
His work helped to end the KKK, which now numbers at best a few thousand (compared to over 4 million members during the 1920s). His work ended lynchings and wholesale segregation. His work and “dream” helped black Americans to pursue great wealth, fame and power. From Barack Obama and Kamala Harris to Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas to Michael Jordan and LeBron James to Sydney Poitier and Morgan Freeman, there is no longer a segregated employment “plantation” for the black man or woman. In the past 60 years black men and women have become successful CEOs, presidents, mayors, governors, astronauts, authors, movie-makers, musicians, athletes and countless other great professions.
Which brings us to the second “King” in this tale.
Born two years after King’s speech, Rodney King grew up a troubled kid near Pasadena, CA. In 1989, he brutalized a Korean store owner for $200 in cash and spent a year in prison. And then, in the early morning hours of March 3, 1991, King and two friends were returning from a party. They were all inebriated and King knew a D.U.I. violated his parole. So Rodney tried to outrun the cops with speeds reaching 117 m.p.h. He even recklessly drove 80 m.p.h. through residential neighborhoods, running stop signs and lights.
When the police finally stopped him, King reportedly made light of the situation, waving at the police chopper, giggling and grabbing his butt (which police interpreted as where he holstered a gun). When four officers tried to handcuff King, he resisted arrest. He was tasered and then rushed officers multiple times. That’s when he’s knocked down by a baton-wielding officer. Officers continued to beat King, even after ordered to stop. Eventually King was cuffed and arrested.
If it wasn’t for an amateur videographer named George Holliday, this event would’ve never been recorded. And even then, his video tape showed only the latter part of the police beating. There was no record, other than police reports, about the events that led to King’s arrest. In the end Rodney King was never charged in this incident despite clearly driving under the influence and evading arrest. The videotape was the bigger story. It literally created a new narrative that exonerated King…and made him a millionaire hero.
Essentially, Rodney King was the victim. Despite his criminal record, his parole violation, his drunk driving, his excessive speeding and resisting arrest, King was the new poster child for police brutality.
The L.A. police department was now on trial. Surprisingly, race wasn’t the issue…at first. However, the black community in L.A. had a long grievance against how the police responded, worked and arrested in their communities. King’s “moment”–despite his crimes–were surprisingly overlooked and excused. What mattered was getting justice for the collective “beatings” the black community had endured (and still faced) at the hands of L.A. police. In their minds there was no difference between Rodney King and Martin Luther King when it came to police beatings, although the latter was clearly done without any criminal mischief. In the black community’s minds, Rodney King was a personification of every black person who was unfairly targeted, arrested and sometimes beat up by the police.
After a highly-publicized trial–presented to a jury composed of ten white, one bi-racial, one Latino and one Asian–on April 29, 1992, all four officers were acquitted of assault. In the charge of excessive force, three of the four officers were found not guilty.
The acquittals lit the fuse to the L.A. riots of 1992. The black community was enraged by the verdicts and decided to mete out their own justice by beating, torching and looting. Roaming black gangs targeted whites, Asians and Latinos. One group of thugs pulled a white man from his vehicle and viciously beat him up, leaving him for dead. Thousands of businesses were vandalized, looted and torched. Whole neighborhoods went up in flames. For six days, Los Angeles was like a war zone. When the smoke cleared, 63 people were dead, thousands more injured and over 3,100 businesses destroyed (nearly $1 billion in total damage).
In the middle of the riots, on May 1, 1992, Rodney King stepped up to a microphone to, hopefully, quell the firestorm:
I just want to say – you know – can we all get along? …Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?…It’s not right, and it’s not going to change anything. We’ll get our justice. They’ve won the battle, but they haven’t won the war. We’ll get our day in court, and that’s all we want. And, just, uh, I love – I’m neutral. I love every – I love people of color. I’m not like they’re making me out to be. We’ve got to quit…It’s just not right, because those people will never go home to their families again. …We all can get along. We just gotta. We gotta. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s, you know, let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to beat it, you know. Let’s try to work it out.
Rodney King’s “can we all get along” message signaled the end of Martin Luther King’s “dream.” By 1992 it was clear that racial injustice remained a perceived problem (in the black communities) and MLK’s vision was likely just a pipe dream. A new era had dawned. In this post-King world, new, more divisive, voices had emerged to spark a distinctly “black power” movement, underfoot since the late 1960s. Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X. Bobby Seale. The Nation of Islam. Black Panthers. During the 1970s, exclusive black culture became a television staple. Sanford and Son. The Jeffersons. Good Times. What’s Happening. Soul Train. Black movies like Shaft and Superfly were popular. Black music from funk to rap, from Earth, Wind and Fire to Michael Jackson ruled the airwaves.
Black America further politically and culturally dominated in the 1980s, most notably behind their own network “Black Entertainment Television” and the racially-segregated politics of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who wanted a distinctly black political party. The Cosby Show reimagined blacks as wealthy, hip and smart (and with an 89% white audience, the “Cosby factor” was a cultural juggernaut). Meanwhile MTV, finally bowing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” devoted huge blocks of air time to promote rap and hip hop music, exposing young white America to these new genres. The National Basketball Association evolved from predominantly white in 1965 to nearly all black in 2020. In fact, out of 450 professional basketball players, only 43 are American-born white (less than 10%).
But not all was well. In the wake of the Reagan revolution, urban poverty continued and black America was hit hardest. In the “urban jungle” black gangs became millionaires selling crack. Theft, murder and other violence ruled the streets. Gangster rap told the tales. Places like Rodney King’s Los Angeles–particularly neighborhoods like south-central Compton–were ground zero.
A new black narrative also emerged.
Martin Luther King’s pacifism wasn’t the answer. After all, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated outside room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. His final words, reportedly, were to a musician named Ben Branch set to perform that night: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his life. He was a martyr.
Instead of looking at how King galvanized a civil rights movement to end systemic racism for the black and create a “unified” racial culture with no colors, the African-American community (as they now preferred to be called) wanted a different outcome. They preferred to remain racially segregated (“black and proud”)…but they also wanted to be wealthy, powerful and famous too. And since the 1980s, that’s exactly what happened. A lot of black America escaped poverty to make a name for themselves…not to mention a lot of money. Today there are more millionaire black Americans than ever.
But this rich reality only further divided black Americans into two social classes: The Cosby and Fresh Prince “rich” (which still looked awfully “white” to many blacks) and the Straight Outa Compton “poor.” The rich blacks no longer faced prejudice or racism, like their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers had. But the poor urban blacks felt differently. In their minds, they were still held down and still oppressed because they were still poor. Their “projects” were now “slums.” Their urban schools were a mess. Black unemployment skyrocketed while Latino and Asian businesses now controlled their neighborhoods. They only way a young black urban male could get “rich” was to gang bang, sell dope and steal.
It’s why poor urban blacks eventually looked to Rodney King as the working solution to their cultural racism. He became a new model for how blacks could get “rich” quick. After all, for his trouble, King was awarded $3.8 million (but only after he turned down a $200,000 free college education). And while his pay day set him for life, it didn’t insure success. King spent his money on a record label that failed. He wrote a memoir that few read. He married and divorced twice. He exhausted much of his money for alcohol and drugs. He eventually landed on reality television…in a celebrity rehab show. Essentially, Rodney King made millions for getting beat up by the police. He then stayed famous for being bad. In July 1995 King went so far as to use his car to hit his wife. On June 17, 2012, his girlfriend found him dead at the bottom of his swimming pool. Alcohol, cocaine and PCP were found in Rodney’s system.
It’s why this is the tale of two Kings.
One a southern messiah who righteously laid down his life in Memphis to carved a dream for his people and forever end institutional racism in America. The other a troubled addict who ended the King era, now smoldering ashes in south-central L.A.–with five short words: “Can’t we all get along?”
It truly was the end of the modern civil rights movement.
In the coming years and decades, new movements emerged with new “heroes”–nearly all with criminal records–to galvanize a purely “Black Lives Matter” culture. From O.J. Simpson to Michael Brown to George Floyd, black Americans often blamed and shamed the police–and sometimes rightly so–to force wholesale reform in police arrest tactics, criminal justice, prison sentencing and incarceration. Often million dollar payouts rewarded the grieving families of sons killed by the police. Furthermore, in the past decade, a new “critical race theory” of American shame revised our national history to project what many believe is a purely racist view. According to this theory, the U.S. Founding Fathers were racists and wanted the institution of slavery. Slavery was now our greatest national sin. In some applications of critical race theory, white people are prejudiced, responsible…and even evil.
In an age where smartphone video and YouTube instantly released raw and unedited material, everything is now subjected to the court of public opinion first. Social narratives are spun on Facebook and Twitter, sometimes completely counter to the actual facts. Ironically, in many ways, the civil rights movement is also a tale of visual technology, aided first by television, then camcorder video and, finally, the smartphone camera.
The irony is America is more racially divided than ever, even while minorities enjoy better livelihoods.
It’s why the messages of both Kings remain relevant and necessary.
As Martin Luther King concluded:
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.
Indeed, I too pray that one day ALL lives will matter and ALL Americans–regardless of ethnicity, age, gender or religion–will be fully free.
Gen X (born 1961-1981) is the most incarcerated generation in American history, as the Pew Research confirmed this past week. According to the Bureau of Justice, the number of Americans in prison currently has returned to the 1995 level, and continues to fall annually.
The rate had been rising exponentially every year since 1980, when Gen X began to graduate high school and enter young adulthood.
And since the majority of incarcerated people go to prison between the ages of 20 and 40, one particular generation of kids grew up more “troubled” and “jailed” than the others.
The question is “why?”
Could it be that Gen X was raised in a new R-rated cultural permissiveness that featured divorce, abortion, sexual exploration, profanity, violence and drugs/alcohol? Many sociologists point to these more tolerant attitudes and media as a reason.
Could it be that, in the 1980s, moral training, church attendance and religious faith declined in influence? Gen X was the first American generation to leave religion at graduation…and never return. They did not receive the same moral and religious foundation as previous American generations. Many religious leaders point to this absence of moral training as a reason.
Could it be that morality, religion and civil behavior, was lampooned in ’80s and ’90s pop culture, from television to music to movies? Many educators, politicians, preachers and other civic leaders have pointed to these media narratives that mocked good behavior as a reason.
Whatever the reason, Gen X did mature to be more agnostic, apathetic, self-destructive, profane and addicted than previous U.S. generations…a veritable cocktail for trouble that can lead to life behind bars.
Cultural labeling as “bad news bears” likely didn’t help Gen X either. Portrayed as “breakfast club” delinquents, Gen X grew up jaded, abandoned and wounded…a “throwaway” generation. Justice, even for minor crimes, was swifter and more excessive in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. In several U.S. states it was literally “three strikes and out.”
As a result of the culture they grew up in, Gen X was a generation more likely to get into trouble…and then do the time…with longer sentences.
With the Millennial generation–who was culturally more wanted, protected and appreciated–the decline in incarceration rates was a blessed result. However, this decline in recent years is also helped by prison reforms and more appropriate sentencing.
Gen X. Goonies. Nerds. Bad News Bears.
Born in the 1960s and 1970s, these kids were also known as “slackers” and the Dumb Generation. They wore their baseball caps backward, listened to heavy metal, grunge and rap. They dropped out of school and church, played video games, got tattoos and earrings, and generally disgusted our elders.
Their young adult lives were “bookended” by tragedy and curse. The oldest experienced 1986. The youngest endured 2003.
In 1986 a space shuttle named “Challenger” exploded on takeoff. The Iran-Contra affair blew up the Reagan revolution. And Bill Buckner booted a soft grounder that cost his Red Sox their first championship since 1918. The Sox were “cursed.” Bill Buckner was vilified…as was a new generation soon to labeled as “X.” Bon Jovi’s two hit songs in 1986 summed us up: “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name.”
In 2003 a different space shuttle named “Discovery” exploded upon re-entry. The U.S. went to war with Iraq. And a mild-mannered, nerdish Chicago Cubs fan named Steve Bartman got fingered and crucified for costing his team their first trip to the World Series since 1945…all for trying to catch a foul ball…which he muffed. Someone else even got the ball. Bartman just sat there, stoic and silent, watching his beloved Cubs let the Marlins put up 8 runs to win the game. Meanwhile, Cubs fans hurled abuse, dumped beer and chanted profanely at Bartman.
The number one song in 2003? Linkin Park’s “Numb.” It fit Steve Bartman’s demeanor in that moment.
And that’s what Gen X was by the early 2000s. N-U-M-B.
The attacks on September 11, the collapse of the economy, and the “Great Recession” would cost careers. The older Gen Xers simply lost everything (and were now “too old” to be re-hired). The younger ones were just “numb” as downsized to survive. Most Gen Xers retreated into entrepreneurial ventures by 2010 only to see Covid-19 shutdowns destroy them again in 2020.
Maybe they are Gen X. A bit naughty. Knocked out. Stuck at a crossroads. But X also marks the spot…where Buckner missed and Bartman muffed. Some of them are nerds or goonies or bad news. But they’re hardly slackers or dumb. They have lived on a prayer all their lives. And they are cursed to a degree, struck by tragedy and crisis, but they don’t let blame be their epitaph. They’ll figure it out. They always do.
America (and her institutions) needs this generation more than ever. They’re in their 40s and 50s now, a bit more paunchy and gray. But they still have a lot of fight in them. They have a lot of good ideas too. They’re ready to lead. And maybe they’ll still get that gold ring.
No, Bill Buckner never got his hardware, but Steve Bartman did.
In 2016 the Cubs finally won the World Series (108 years between championships) and the organization put the “curse” to rest by awarding Steve Bartman his own championship ring. Buckner was also formally forgiven in 2004 when the Sox ended their championship curse and found redemption in 2008 when he finally relented and accepted the invitation back into Boston’s baseball fold. Both men lived reclusive lives after “their moments.” Buckner retreated to Idaho for years of quiet solitude. He died in 2019, in a little town outside Boise, far from Boston. Bartman still lives quietly and secretly with his family, somewhere in Chicago. Although formally encouraged and welcomed back to Wrigley, he’s never attended a Chicago Cub game since October 14, 2003. He refuses all media requests.
Gen X–those jaded kids of the 60s, 70s and 80s–will likely finish the same.
Maybe they’ll never get the “ring” (cultural blessing) they deserve, but maybe they’ll earn some respect and redemption in the end…if the ball bounces favorably their way.
Today we celebrate the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969. It was a momentous and heroic feat, a testament to American strength, ingenuity and persistence. Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins are historic names and this moment an “American moment.”
But we should never forget Apollo 1.
Just two years earlier, on February 27, 1967, three Apollo astronauts were incinerated inside their capsule while it still sat on the pad. Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were America’s first human casualties in the race to the moon. Their names are no less historic nor important.
Mission Control flight director Gene Kranz summarized the tragedy as being too “gung ho” and not truly being ready for launch. He then issued this directive to all his engineers at NASA’s Mission Control center:
“From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: “Tough and Competent.” Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for.
Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.
When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write “Tough and Competent” on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”
TOUGH AND COMPETENT. These were the values that landed a man on the moon on July 20, 1969. These were the principles that made, and still make, America great. George Washington. Abraham Lincoln. Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony. The boys who stormed a Normandy beach. Ronald Reagan. The first responders who climbed the twin towers on September 11, 2001.
Those two words describe true Americans. It’s why no depression is too great, no war too lost and no moon too far. We the people will figure it out. It’s how we landed three Americans on the moon. It’s the heart of the U.S.A.
And the story of US.
In the late 1970s, there was only two opinions about a popular dance craze known as “disco.” It was either the best thing since the jitterbug or the worst thing since the Hindenburg. Very few had a view in the middle.
For the critical ear, the monotonous beat, synthesizer hooks, flourishing strings and banal, often repetitive lyrics created a candy-coated music that, thankfully, had little staying power. Most “disco” songs proved forgettable tunes until they’re needed in a period piece movie or retro 70s birthday party for the geriatric set. If it wasn’t for “Saturday Night Fever” in 1977, disco might’ve remained a minor musical genre, but thanks to the Brothers Gibb (or Bee Gees)–their falsettos, coiffed hair and danceable music–the craze began.
Suddenly disco was everywhere.
America was doing “the hustle” and hanging out in trendy hot spots like “Studio 54.” Disco balls, platform shoes, white leisure suits and dance moves like the “pump,” “New Yorker” and “Disco Duck” were popular. Disco emerged out of the black fusion of soul, r&b and funk in the early 1970s through bands like the Trammps, A Taste of Honey and Earth, Wind and Fire, but it was a white guy named “KC” and his Sunshine Band that gave disco it’s “That’s The Way I Like It” blessing (1975). Another “white” one-hit wonder band known as “Wild Cherry” also helped to “play that funky music (1976).”
After 1977 and “Saturday Night Fever,” disco music was everywhere, launching new careers (or reviving old ones) for Donna Summer, Sister Sledge, Chic, Village People and Ohio Players. Even mainstream rock artists, to the disappointment of their fans, churned out their disco songs, including the likes of Queen, the Rolling Stones and KISS. Thankfully, these forgettable songs are just that.
By 1979, disco faced its Waterloo. The growing backlash and “Disco Sucks” hatred was growing to a fever pitch. Perhaps it was the emerging punk movement in Great Britain, the musical antithesis to disco. Maybe disco was a victim of its own success (anything “white hot” burns out rapidly). Or maybe its because the music was truly that forgettable.
Whatever the reason, the disco era pretty much ended in a base “brawl” game in Chicago on July 12, 1979. That’s the night that White Sox fans hauled tens of thousands of disco records to the ball park to purposely destroy their music. It was planned as part of a double-header game but the second game on the twin bill never happened. Between games, the angry fans stormed the field, destroying more than just vinyl records by these disco artists. Fights broke out. Fires too. It was an ugly, sad and notable night. Disco wasn’t dead, but its days were numbered.
It was the close of the 1970s. The end of disco. In a year a new musical genre, also shipped in from across the pond, would capture the American ear: new wave. This music would explode thanks to a new cable television channel named MTV and disco would die on the vine as a new synth-pop dance music moved in to stay.
Today is the anniversary of a ruling that was far more transformative to American culture than Roe v. Wade (1973).
On this day, school prayer was ruled unconstitutional (a year later the same SCOTUS would opine that Bible readings were equally wrong). It’s the day religion (Christianity) was essentially segregated…and barred in the educational curriculum of America’s children born in a post-1960 world.
Both of these rulings, without any legal precedent nor a violation of a law of Congress to “establish a religion” set America on a secular path. Today, nearly sixty years after these rulings, it’s plausible to trace nearly all of America’s social ills, dysfunctions and vices to these two rulings.
Is this what the Founding Father’s desired or envisioned for America? Was America, as many propose, originally a secular, multi-religious culture? If you’d like to get their take on this ruling, check out my article in the current Christian Living (Boise) magazine.
Television was (and is) a transformative technology.
It transformed how we processed information and received entertainment. It transformed how we interacted with our world. It transformed education, religion and government. And it introduced other transformative technologies, from the remote control to “smart” television. From rabbit ears to cable to satellite to streaming, television has reimagined our world.
And yet few TV technologies were more transformative than the video cassette recorder (VCR). The ability to time-shift (record and watch at a different time) television broadcasts personalized the viewing experience. Suddenly television was democratized. A VCR changed how “we the people” watched television. We were no longer slaves to the TV Guide and network programming schedules. We could watch television on our terms.
Before the VCR, television was a live event. You gathered with family and friends to watch the show. The family room transformed into the new cultural theater. The VCR and later DVR (digital video recording) changed how (and when) it all happened. Today, streaming allows viewers to slate, schedule and save entire seasons in the “cloud.” No more boxes of plastic and tape. No more lost episodes due to a VCR eating the tape. No more recording a baseball game over a priceless family video (been there, done that!).
And it all started on this date (June 7) in 1965 thanks to Sony.