Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ray Charles: Genius & Soul


by David Ritz

Nothing has prepared you for the encounter. The neighborhood, in the long shadow of downtown Los Angeles, is urban bleak: tire stores, upholstery outlets, taco stands, check-cashing services. The two-story building is perfectly innocuous; the second floor, where the man has worked and recorded for the past 35 years, is a windowless affair. The feeling is utilitarian, the decor unexciting. Except for the music biz magazines on the coffee table, you might be sitting in an insurance office. But when you're escorted down a short hallway into his private office, when the door opens and suddenly you encounter him face-to-face, when you shake his hand and feel the electricity coursing through his body, you're buzzed, you're amazed; you've never entered an energy field quite like his. This is the private world where Ray Charles rules.

"Ray Charles," said New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, "is a presence unlike any other." Gill understated his case. Ray Charles is a force of nature, a man who now seems incredibly simple, now incredibly complex. His confidence is rock solid, sturdy as a great oak. Almost 70, he appears indestructible, bouncing around the office with the gusto of a teenager. A beguiling mix of big-city savvy and back-country crude, Ray reacts to your visit with high-spirited hospitality. You've come to elicit from him an overview of his remarkable career, to play him the songs from this collection so you might hear his own reactions, glean his own insights.

In this arena Ray's blindness is beside the point. He moves around the office in fact, around the building with breakneck speed and unhampered efficiency. He knows every inch of this territory, commanding the space with an almost haughty sovereignty - He's the first to say, "I love being a big fish in a little pond." Ray's restrictions his small suite of offices, his compact recording studioafford him freedom. The walls are covered with every imaginable award. He sits in a high-back chair behind an expansive desk. His relationship to the chair reminds you of his relationship to the piano stool he occupies during concerts; in gracefully daring ways, he slips and slides, dips and nearly drops to the floor before catching himself. His body follows the surprising twists of his discourse. He can't sit still. His energy won't allow it. His enthusiasm for talking, for playing, for merely being alive has him moving in many directions at once. Mentally and physically, the man is all over the map.

His physical bearing is impressive. Broad shoulders, thick chest, taut waist, no sloppy body fat, he projects the pluck of a former welterweight ready to return to the ring at a moment's notice. He keeps his hair/now nearly white, close-cropped, the same style he's always worn. "I see cats my age dying their hair with black shoe polish," he says. "Wanna look younger. Gotta look younger. Well, I'm not putting that crap on my head. I've earned this white. I'm not changing. Been saying this for 40 years, and I'm still saying it: Sweetheart, I don't change."

His appearance is neat, his snug trousers of good fabric, his shoes mirror-polished. He shaves with a straight razor and does a super close job. Only a tuft of unruly hair, caused by his nervous manner of rubbing his scalp, gives the slightest impression of disorder. From certain angles, the tuft makes him look like a little boy.

Constancy is a virtue; Constancy is Ray's trademark. Constancy is Ray's security. His routine is his comfort. His comfort is his excitement. In a strange way, his blindness is another source of excitement, Ray is cocky about his ability to do what any sighted person can do and more. Rather than represent defeat, his blindness has come to symbolize triumph. His sightlessness is symbolized by the coolest object in his sartorial arsenal—his dark glasses. His glasses are fascinating, and you find yourself staring at them, thinking how they well may be the ultimate statement of hip. After Ray Charles, everyone wanted to wear shades.

His look hasn't changed in a half-century. Aside from Ray's voice, his shades are his most identifiable trademark. Their shape, the thick temples, the sleek, impenetrably dark lenses-suggest mystery. They seem to say, I can’t see, but man, I sure can feel. They both draw you to him and keep you at a distance. In the intimacy of his office and the immediacy of his own building, his blindness affords him extra power, gives him distinct advantage. You’re certain he’s viewing a deeper reality than your own seeing eyes will allow.

It’s his voice that hits you hardest. After all, his voice is the reason you’re here. As well as being a great singer, Ray Charles is a great talker, an extravagant teller of tales, a man who revels in straight-line relationship between thought and expression. He thinks it; he says it. He revels in his own vulgarity; he loves to curse, just as he loves to surprise you with an especially eloquent phrase.

Just as Ray enjoys his own singing, he enjoys the sound of his unselfconscious banter. His talk is musical. Or maybe it’s the other way around. His music is conversational. Either way, he’s making music with his mouth. You sit and look and listen to what is essentially a performance, a verbal tour de force.

When you question him, his body stays still. He turns his head towards you and listens with rapt attention. Before responding, he may wait several seconds. At times, searching for the right words, he’ll emit a long “hmmmmmmmmm.” Ray has a slight stutter. But once he gets on a roll, he’s gone. The texture and tone of his voice will change; he’ll exclaim in a high tenor or reflect in a low baritone. To a woman on the phone, he’s dripping molasses; to a business associate, he bellows with authority. Regardless of your gender, he calls you “honey” or “sweetheart.” His voice is porous, versatile, and so directly linked to his feelings that you never doubt his sincerity.

The variations in his voice being to mind the kind of country preachers he first heard as a boy. There is a decided rhythm, a seductive syncopation to his stories. Verbal excitement is part of his charm. Some words are whispered, attached, elongated, or chopped off at the knee.

In an era when many bemoan the absence of self-esteem, Ray has self-esteem to spare. One of his favorite expressions is, "Don't forget, honey, I love me." The remark doesn't seem egotistical, but purely factual. The man likes himself. The man respects himself. He's his own biggest fan, and isn't the least ashamed of saying so. "Whatever's happening in music," he says, "I know I can sing my ass off." As an artist in a world of critics, he displays little vulnerability and no apparent fear. "Sometimes I've clipped the nasty reviews I've gotten," Ray recalls, "and hung 'em on the wall. Just put 'em there to show myself they ain't gonna kill me. My music's
not about pleasing critics; it's about pleasing me."

Spread out between him and your seat by the side of his desk are the discs that compose this collection. At this point of his life you wonder what he thinks of his five-decade career. You wonder how he views the body of his work — the stylistic innovations, the remarkable diversity. Before you slip in the first disc to get his reaction, you think back to where he came from and the wonder of his unprecedented achievements.


The raw facts are startling: Born into abject poverty during the Great Depression in the viciously racist Deep South, blinded at age 6, orphaned at 15, Ray Charles was nonetheless a roaring success by the time he was 25. How he overcame such stringent obstacles is a study in hell-bent tenacity. How he changed the course of American music speaks to the nature of his peculiar genius.

He was born Ray Charles Robinson on September 23, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, and grew up in northwest Florida in the tiny town of Greenville. He's quick to tell you he's a backwoods boy. Like a country lawyer who loves saying he's just a country lawyer, Ray can camouflage his sophistication behind the guise of a bumpkin. He can also confuse facts about his early life. When he and I were working on his autobiography, Brother Ray, for instance, in 1976, he spent many hours describing his mother, Aretha. In his memory, she emerged as a contradictory character, a woman who seemed to both indulge him and discipline him with equal fervor. Then one day Ray said, "I had two mothers. Aretha was the one who set down the rules. But Mary Jane was my father's first wife. I don't believe he married Aretha. I barely knew my father. He wasn't around. He'd left Mary Jane to work the railroads. And these two women raised me. These two women loved me and gave me everything I needed to get by."

Getting by became a lifelong art form. Ray's strategy for survival—emotional and practical—started early. In cruel succession, he faced what might have been devastating blows: At age five, he watched his only sibling, four-year-old George, drown in a washtub, despite Ray's effort to pull him out. Then months later, Ray slowly began losing his sight. By age six, he was blind. The cause remains a mystery The medical expertise was questionable, but Ray suspects glaucoma.

It should have been a tragedy, but wasn't. In fact, blindness and its aftermath set him up for eventual victory. Blindness challenged him, tested him, and finally served to strengthen his resolve. He credits Aretha.

"Looking back," he says, "I'm amazed by the wisdom of that little country woman. It was like she saw what was ahead of me, and she was dead set on making sure I could cope. Today they call it 'tough love.' When I got to feeling sorry for myself, she'd get tough and say, 'You're blind, you ain't dumb; you lost your sight, not your mind.' And she'd make me do my chores, make me clean house, make me see I could do almost anything anyone else could do. Didn't overprotect me until I was scared of the world. Showed me I didn't have to be scared of anything. I even wound up riding a borrowed bike around the woods, A friend would yell when I was about to crash into a tree, so I learned to avoid disaster. Learned to make my own way."

Ray's way led to the Red Wing Cafe and Mr. Wylie Pitman, the first real-life musician he encountered. "Called him Mr. Pit," Ray remembers. "He was the cat who set my soul on fire. Played him some mean boogie woogie piano. That was the style back then. I'd heard Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis coming out the jukebox, but Mr. Pit, who owned the cafe and this upright piano, man, Mr. Pit was live. He'd let me jump in his lap and fool with the keys myself. Couldn't play nothing, but Mr. Pit was beautiful, he'd say, 'Go on, Ray! Go on and mash those keys!' I love the man to this day 'cause he could have shooed me away. Instead he made me feel like the piano was my friend. Made me feel like me and the piano went together real good."

Together with the good-news gospel of the rural Shiloh Baptist Church and the songs of country bluesmen like Tampa Red and Washboard Sam, Mr. Pit's busy boogie woogie introduced the blind boy to the joyful complexities of African- American music.

By age seven, Ray was separated from the country village of his childhood on orders from Aretha. "Leaving Mama might have been tougher than going blind. I'd never been away, and here she was insisting I get on a train and ride something like 160 miles to St. Augustine, See, she found out about a state school for the blind. Found out I could go there for free. Most women would never let go of their only child like that. But Mama wasn't most women, Mama knew I needed the tools of education. She didn't have those tools, bless her heart, but she sure knew where to find them for me. Getting on that train and leaving Mama was the most miserable day of my life, but it also saved my life."

The school itself was segregated, as Ray puts it, "every goddamn which way you could imagine." That meant the blind from the deaf, girls from boys, and, most pointedly, black from white. "Imagine separating kids according to color when we couldn't even see each other," Ray exclaims. "Now ain't that a bitch!"

Somehow Ray adjusted. Educationally, Ray even thrived. He quickly learned Braille and developed a lifelong habit of reading. He remains a voracious reader to this day. He also learned to write well. (Recent e-mails from Ray remind me of his succinct and expressive prose.) His interest in all things mechanical. Which began as early as age three, was encouraged. He learned to repair radios and car engines. Most significantly, though, he benefited from formal instruction on piano. From some of the older boys playing jazz, and from teachers challenging him with pieces by Chopin and Strauss, he rapidly improved. He took to formal instruction and became a proficient reader and eventually writer of musical composition. He also picked up everything he heard on the airwaves. Then, as now, he was open to all styles.

"Take Artie Shaw," he says. "He was one of my first heroes. Didn't even know he was white. Didn't even care. Even more than Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw had the clarinet technique I loved. That perfect tone, that sweet sound. Plus he swung his ass off. Artie Shaw is the reason I took up the instrument myself.

"I'd say hero number two was Art Tatum. Tatum was God. Man did more to a piano than anyone who's ever lived. I wasn't good enough to carry Tatum's shit bucket, but that didn't stop me from trying. Tatum played modern, and I wanted to play modern; I wanted to sound like right now. Tatum showed me how far your imagination can carry you. Long as you got the chops."

Chops became a lifelong obsession—constructing chords, playing in all keys, playing in all tempos, switching styles at the drop of a hat. Individuality was not yet a concept. Like most kids, Ray was delighted to copy, thrilled to sound anything close to the original.

"My ears were sponges," he says. "Soaked it all up. There were radios around, and of course I'd listen to the big bands. The white ones, like the Dorsey Brothers and Glenn Miller, had a smooth kinda swing. But I felt like the black ones swung harder. I mean Lucky Millinder, Buddy Johnson, Ellington, and Basie. All the singers fascinated me. Didn't care if it was Vaughn Monroe or Dick Haymes. I liked Jo Stafford, and I loved Billie Holiday. The singers I dug most had the most personality; they put attitude into song. I even dug hillbilly attitude when it was done right, like Hank Williams and Hank Snow. I spent many a night listening to The Grand Ole Opry. But right after that, I might find someone who had a record player and stay up listening to the Golden Gate Quartet or the Wings Over Jordan, gospel groups who made me happy with those harmonies and shouting rhythms I'd heard as a baby back in Greenville."

Ray embraced the enormous variety of American popular culture of the 1930s and '40s. Somehow the prejudiced nature of his immediate environment did not embitter him. Later he would say, "I was more interested in getting ahead than getting back." Because he was both curious and smart, he learned in a variety of forms the same essential lesson: Music must entertain.

In 1945, not yet 15, Ray faced his most severe and painful challenge since going blind. The school informed him that Aretha had died in Greenville. She was barely 30. The news traumatized Ray. He went home for the funeral and found himself unable to cry, eat, or even talk. He stayed in a state of shock. "Everyone started worrying about me," he says. "They thought I'd gone nuts. I had. Mama was the world to me, and with Mama gone, I didn't wanna face the world. Didn't wanna face nothing."

It took the village matriarch, a woman named Ma Beck who had mothered 22 children, to reach Ray's suffering heart. “She took me and shook me and told me to stop feeling sorry for myself,” Ray remembers. "She said what Mama would have said, 'Boy, you gotta go on.' Ma Beck was the one who broke me down. Tears just poured out of me. For days, I cried like a baby."

In the aftermath of his near breakdown, Ray realized he was no longer a child. "Not having a mother," he says, "flipped everything around in my mind, I'd been lonely in school, but I got used to that kind of loneliness. That was different. This meant there was nothing and no one in the world to catch me when I fell." In practical terms, he faced the first crossroads of his young adult life: whether to return to school or go out in the world. He spent part of a summer in Greenville and then went to Tallahassee to stay with friends, all the while mulling over his next move.

"Maybe school made me feel safe," Ray reflects. "But school also fenced me in. I'd been in St. Augustine nearly eight years, and I knew the place, knew the teachers. Felt like they taught me what they had to teach. Got me some good basic instruction, but the school could only show me so much. In my own way—call it cockiness or whatever you like—I figured I was ready for the world."

Ray returned to Greenville to say goodbye to Mary Jane and the community that took a special interest in him. He remembers talk of a collective effort to buy him a seeing-eye dog. "Didn't like that idea," he states emphatically. "Three things I wouldn't have—no dog, no cane, no guitar. I associated those things with helplessness and begging. Mama had taught me to rely on my own brain. I appreciated people's kindness but didn't want people's sympathy. Sympathy for what? I was young and strong. Besides, I could play the piano and sing in tune. Watch out!"

A brave spirit and restless energy brought Ray to Jacksonville. "I knew it to be the biggest city in the state, and that's where I wanted to be. Wanted to see what it was like to play with working musicians. And naturally I wanted to make money. Had to make money. Had to see if I could make money playing music. That's one of the reasons I followed Charles Brown and Nat Cole so closely. They were popular, but also helluva musicians."

A word about the California piano trio style, embodied by Brown and Cole, that so deeply influenced young Ray: With roots in the great masters — Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Earl Hines — Nat Cole and Charles Brown were not only virtuosos but marvelously distinctive vocalists as well. Two notes out of their mouths and you knew who they were. Cole was the more sophisticated of the two. His drummerless instrumentation—piano, bass, and guitar—rendered a lighter, more liquid sound. During those frenetic war years when jazz was birthing bebop, Cole incorporated the new lexicon without losing a sense of easy-to-follow melody. He was a modernist, but he was always accessible.

"And naturally I noticed that white people liked Nat Cole as much as us," adds Ray. "No one had to tell me that white people had the money."

Black people adored Charles Brown. He, too, came out of the two-fisted, no-holds-barred school of heavyweight pianists in which Ray was such a serious student. Brown had first been featured with Johnny Moore and the Three Blazers, another popular guitar-bass-piano trio, before going out on his own. Unlike Cole though, Brown was primarily a blues singer, Texas-bred and deeply funky, who added a new dimension to the big-city blues. His blues were kicked-backed California cool.

"The thing about Nat Cole and Charles Brown," says Ray, "is that I could actually imitate them. I'm not talking about stealing a lick here and there, but flat-out copying. I'd sing their hits at little clubs, and people would close their eyes and hardly know the difference. See, I saw that as a way to get gigs. Remember now, I'm still this country kid trying to figure out how the world works. Well, it works by giving people what they wanted. And what they wanted was Nat Cole and Charles Brown. Someone asked me if I felt bad being a copycat for so long . Feel bad? I said, Honey, I feel good any time I can make good money making good music!"

Making money was the chief challenge of Ray's teen years as he bounced around Florida, moving from Jacksonville to Orlando to Tampa, living in flophouses, flopping at friends' houses, sometimes working, sometimes starving. The scuffle was intense. From big bands to solo piano gigs, Ray took what he could. His strategy was survival at any cost.

"Back then, man," he says with a smile, "I even worked in a hillbilly band called the Florida Playboys. It was a big group, couple of fiddlers, regular guitar and steel guitar both. Funny thing is that the band was all-white. But no one seemed to mind me being there, long as I played the right notes."

Ray's way of finding work in the maze of the American music scene, with its baffling twists and turns, is best seen in his recordings. Listening to those songs, Ray reflects on his long struggle for acceptance as he tells you the story of his singular approach to art and life.


The Florida music scene toughened Ray to the wider world of show business. From ages 15 through 18, he negotiated the emotions of small acceptance and large rejection. Ambitious to hook up with a national figure, Ray auditioned during this down period for Lucky Millinder, whose big band competed with Ellington's, Basie's, and Lunceford's. Lucky was not lucky for Ray.

"Told me I didn't have what it takes," remembers Ray. "Put it just like that. At the time I thought Lucky was cold-blooded. But Lucky was just honest. I had potential, but in the '40s, jazz musicians were right on it; they didn't want to hear about no potential. Motherfuckers would cut you up in a jam session and serve your ass for dinner."

While Ray's Florida adventures yielded few material rewards, they ultimately boosted his confidence. He saw he could survive; shuffling from city to city, he saw he could deal with the road. That revelation would sustain him for a lifetime. Florida also served to stimulate his curiosity about the world outside Florida. Ray had a live-in girlfriend who would eventually give birth to his first child. But no woman or child — and over the years, Ray would have many — would ever change the focus of Ray's career. He knew he had to get away and, less than three years out of school, he decided to go as far as he could without leaving the U.S. According to Ray, the crucial moment came when he asked guitarist Gosady McGee to get a map and point to the city farthest from Tampa. When the answer came back "Seattle," Ray said, "I'm gone."

In the late '40s Seattle was smoking. The military presence meant party time, and party time meant work for musicians. Ray soaked up the steamy brew of old I moved to Los Angeles. "Jack was an important player in my career,' says Ray. ' Jack was the first of many record men who never thought I needed a producer. He never told me what to sing or how to sing. I loved that. And I appreciated that. These guys saw fit to let me follow myself. Jack also knew I needed road work, so he hooked me up with Lowell Fulson, a guitarist in the T-Bone Walker mold. Lowell was a big name back then. I played piano in his band, wrote charts, and soon became his musical director. During his show, I'd do a couple of numbers of my own."

By 1952 Ray had been around the country several times with Lowell and was eager to go out on his own. He signed with the Shaw Agency, who booked him as a single, meaning Ray had to pick up whatever musicians were available wherever he happened to be. Around the same time, while Lauderdale's label was suffering financially, Ray was courted by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson of Atlantic, another independent R&B label, but one with unusual savvy about making and marketing black music.

"I knew Ray's early work," recalls Ertegun. "I recognized his talent and wanted him on Atlantic. We met him in a Harlem hotel, offered a contract, and that was it."

"I'd call it one of the happiest relationships of my life," says Ray. "Ahmet and Herb and, a little later, Jerry Wexler were cats who understood me completely. They gave me songs they thought fit me, but if I said they didn't, no one argued. No one forced me. Truth is, I forced myself to write a lot of the songs, 'cause I wasn't happy with the material. I don't consider myself a real writer. I write out of necessity. In those early sessions, though, other people were writing the arrangements, guys like Jesse Stone."

After making records that reflected the influence of Cole and Brown, Ray made a change. And in doing so, smack dab in the middle of the ultraconservative 1950s, Ray Charles changed American music. All the elements came together in a glorious and improbable synthesis of sound. With seven years of real-life arranging experience under his belt, Ray now commanded the voicings he had long sought; his aural vision came into sharp focus. Lean and clean, his septet became a single instrument capable of saying everything he wanted to say.

And his voice, around which his self-styled charts were molded, was finally his own. "Got tired of folks saying, 'Man, you sound just like Nat Cole; man, you sound just like Charles Brown," Ray freely admits. "I held on to those styles a long , long time, but after I was with Atlantic awhile, after I had me a few little hits, I figured I was my own man. So I sang in my own voice." That voice—raw, real, bluer than blue, and sanctified as Sunday morning—signaled a new direction. The voice was filled with confidence, pain, joy; the voice was flexible, funny, loose enough to slide up to falsetto, fall into baritone funk, scream, whisper, shout out the good news. The voice projected a natural grace and straight-up honesty that caught and held the attention and affection of music fans, first in America, then the world.

Beyond the beauty of the voice was the daring musical form. Ray tore down the chain-link fence separating the secular from the sacred. He took gospel songs, retained their rhythms, changed their words, and invented a form soon to be called soul.

The great separation felt by so many African American singers between the holy church and unholy world was merely an abstraction to Ray Charles. It meant nothing. Ray was beyond superstitions. He did not fear the God who, in the minds of generations of church singers, forbade the mingling of genres. Ray's God was the God of One, the God for whom all music, rooted in honest expression of heart and soul, is righteous and true. Besides, he wanted to survive; he needed money.

So the songs came pouring out of him, a startling series of gospel-fueled blues-based laments and celebrations, vignettes that spoke to the loss of love, the pang of loneliness, the glorification of women, the obsession of romance. Unlike contemporaries like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Ray's aesthetics were not aimed at teenagers. They were too heavy, too adult. "Sometimes I'm thrown in with the cats who started rock 'n' roll," says Ray, "but I don't see it that way. My things weren't for kids. Kids later picked up on them, but they had a different feeling than Chuck and Richard. Chuck and Richard had grooves that drove the teens nuts. Seems like my grooves drew an older crowd. My writing had a different slant."

Ray is especially candid and unusually humble in describing his early writing. "Looking back over my career, I didn't do that much writing. But if people think of me as a writer, that's because what little writing I did was successful. Still don't consider myself a writer, not like a Duke Ellington or a George Gershwin. My shit is simple. Say what you gotta say in two, three minutes. Now write the words first 'cause that's the hardest part for me. Once you got your little story line, it's nothing to find the right notes. Remember, though, my main thing is singing. I gear up everything—the song, the rhythm, the arrangement—to highlight my voice."

Forty-five years after Ray recorded "I've Got A Woman" with his first-ever brand-new band, the sound still pierces the soul. Ray Charles' little bands of the '50s remain among the most influential musical units in the history of pop, rock, soul—or whatever you name it. His early hits on Atlantic are a model of emotional efficiency, maximum impact in minimum time.

"My cats could really jam up," says Ray. "On 'I Got A Woman,' my first thing to hit #1 on the R&B chart, that's Donald Wilkerson on tenor. He was a man whose sax could make you cry, Wilkerson never got the recognition of a John Coltrane, but he had that kind of talent. There were beautiful cutting contests between Donald and Fathead. That's Fathead playing baritone, by the way, on 'Greenbacks.'"

"One of the astounding aspects of Ray's early recordings," says Jerry Wexler, who was at the Atlanta sessions, "was his flexibility. He could adjust to any circumstance. Even more striking was his complete proficiency at production. He had the total sound. We were the students, he was the teacher. We merely turned on the lights—which he didn't even heed."

"We cut 'A Fool For You' in Miami after I was up all night singing," says Ray. "Maybe it helped that my voice was hoarse. It's a serious song. I like it when I sing, 'Ever since I been five years old...way down in my soul.' I mean, that's saying something. I usually prefer other people's lyrics over mine, but this is one time when I came through. Sorry, man, but that song's pretty goddamn deep.

"I look at 'Hallelujah I Love Her So' as a breakthrough. Not that the song is any big deal. It's cute, but it caught on bigger than anything I'd ever done. That's when I started hearing the word crossover. Meaning what? Meaning whites were buying 'Hallelujah' in big numbers. White singers, like Peggy Lee, started singing cover versions. I took that as a compliment. Everyone could relate to the story."

Ray's recording career is a model of slow-but-steady momentum and expansion. A cautious producer by nature, he considered changes for months, even years, before executing them. "Take this idea of background vocals," he says. "I used a vocal trio behind me—Fathead, Wilkerson, and a girl called Mary Ann Fisher. As time went on, I thought it'd be hip to have all-girl voices behind. I liked the idea of being the only man with lots of women. Still like the idea today. Well, I heard a group called the Cookies and asked their leader, Margie Hendrix, if they'd sing with me. She said sure, and that was it."

The innovation would be adopted by everyone from Elvis to Prince. But where did Ray get the idea? "Church," he says. "People like James Cleveland and Albertina Walker and the Davis Sisters. Loved their background sounds, the way the girls echoed and built up the lead vocal. Loved the contrast."

When Ray wasn't writing his own songs, he was choosing gems written by others that sound as if they could have been written by him, classics like Doc Pomus' brilliant dirge "Lonely Avenue." In a similar style, "Drown In My Own Tears" and "(Night Time Is) The Right Time" are two other flawless diamonds.


Nineteen fifty-nine was the year. Before then, Ray Charles was a consistent hitmaker of a new-fangled rhythm & blues. He also won recognition as a jazz artist. In 1958, when he played the Newport Jazz Festival, his band surprised the devotees with their blistering brand of soul bop. His Soul Brothers collaboration with vibist Milt Jackson was a stunning meditation on pure-heart jazz in blue. In the summer of 1959, though, he exploded with the biggest record of his career. Ray tells the story:
"Hank Crawford had joined the band. Everyone knows Hank's a helluva alto man, but in those days he was playing baritone—I'd double up on alto—and Hank
was also writing. I'd dictate charts to him, and he soon learned my writing style. With Hank around, I was getting more arrangements done, but on this one particular night we'd run out of arrangements. Man, we'd run out of tunes. It was 1 a.m. and the owner said we needed to play another ten minutes, so I just started jamming and told everyone, including the Raeletts, to follow me. That jam became 'What'd I Say.' By the crowd reaction I knew we had something. The crowd went wild. We stormed into New York a few weeks later and cut it. Before then, everyone was laughing at me for playing electric piano. After 'What'd I Say,' those same cats were running out scrambling to buy electric pianos of their own."

"What'd I Say" became an anthem of playful sexuality; its call-and-response mocked the rhythms of lovemaking. Several stations went so far as to ban the song. "Pissed me off," says Ray, "because the ban was lifted when white singers sang my song. What were the stations saying—that black sex is dirty and white sex is clean? It was crazy, but I didn't care. More they played it, more royalties for me."

Atlantic's most extravagant Ray Charles production is an album titled The Genius Of Ray Charles. One side consists of ballads with lush strings; the flipside puts Ray in front of a big band. "I was in heaven in both situations," he says. "See, I wanted to sing pretty things with lots of fiddles around me, and I wanted to sing bright things with the brass kicking my ass." In the album's original liner notes, critic Nat Hentoff calls Ray "one of the most warmly personal and sensitive ballad singers of his generation."

The most moving ballad is included here: "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Cryin'." "The thrill for me," says Ray, "was having Ralph Burns write the arrangements. Coming up, I was a Woody Herman fan, and the name Ralph Burns was all over Woody's records." Ray's performances are heartbreakingly tender, a revelation that the rawness of his natural voice was as effective on slow standards as up-tempo R&B. If Nat Cole was the smoothest balladeer of his day, Ray would become the most soulful balladeer of his era.

Ironically, in the wake of Ray's greatest triumphs on Atlantic—"What'd I Say" as a single and The Genius Of Ray Charles as an album — he left them for ABC. "That was a big move for me," he comments, "because I loved Ahmet and Nesuhi and Jerry. But I was growing up. Learning business. And when ABC offered a big advance, a richer royalty rate plus ownership of my masters, I was sold. I was also lucky that Sam Clark, the man at ABC, was basically as cool as [Jack] Lauderdale or Wexler when it came to my music. He let me do what I wanted."

The first phase of Ray's ABC work is a continuation of his small band configurations begun at Atlantic. Two differences, though, are telling—first, the band was better because it had expanded to include Leroy "Hog" Cooper on baritone sax; and secondly, Ray's repertoire had been augmented by his relationship with Percy Mayfield.

"Must have been about 1959 when Leroy joined the band. I'd met him in his hometown, Dallas, when I was living there. The minute I felt I could add an eighth member to the band, I had Fathead call Hog to join us. See, Leroy is a pure baritone saxist. That's his instrument. He's a big man, and he gets over his ax like it's a toy. Cat plays fast, plays filthy blues, plays anything. He plays with body and balls, and he gave that little band a bottom it never had before. Hank switched to alto, his main horn, I mainly stayed at piano and we really started to cook."

The initial ABC R&B singles are among the most satisfying in Ray's career. His long keyboard solo on "Sticks And Stones" is riveting. And on "Them That Got," you hear the richness of Hog Cooper's fat baritone laying down a foundation that lifts the little band to new heights. Fathead's solo is another lyrical marvel. But perhaps the best of this series of singles are those composed by bluesman/singer/songwriter Percy Mayfield - "Hit The Road Jack," "But On The Other Hand Baby," "At The Club," and "Hide 'Nor Hair."

"I knew Percy as the singer and writer of ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love," Ray explains. "Don't wanna go off oh an ego trip but Percy really liked me, and he’d come by and play me songs. We worked out an arrangement without signing any contracts that if I'd record his songs, 1 could also publish them. See, I was learning more business. Percy was beautiful, not just 'cause his songs were poetry, but ‘cause he understood me. If his songs didn't fit me, he wouldn't take it personally He'd just go back and write me another And when they did fit, honey, the fit was perfect."

The happy Mayfield/Charles collaboration was marked by humor. A couple of years before he died in 1984, Percy told me, "I can make Ray laugh like no one else, I know what tickles the man, and I know how to put that tickle in the song so everyone gets a chuckle of it." The biggest chuckle was "Hit the Road Jack," a huge #1 hit in 1961 that turned heartbreak into a comedy skit. "At The Club" and "Hide ‘Nor Hair" (with its tongue-in-cheek reference to Ray’s real-life Dr. Foster) are also comic romps. Percy's — and Ray's — extraordinary versatility are also evident on the serious sides. "But On The Other Hand Baby" may be the purest blues Ray has ever enunciated, Phil Guilbeau's muted horn an exquisite counterpoint to the story of equivocal love.

Singles like "Unchain My Heart," another Top 10 hit in 1961, kept Ray's R&B train in motion. His spirit was still afire. The same spirit, though, sought artistic expansion. The Genius album on Atlantic whetted his appetite for new musical dishes:

"Started fooling with the idea of a whole album strung together by a single idea," says Ray. "Couldn't call my ideas great. Might even call ‘em jivey, but they were mine. They were little ideas and I liked them. The first one was an album of songs with names of the states. Corny? Hell, yes, but I'm a corny cat."

The album was called Genius Hits The Road and included "Georgia On My Mind," not only a towering hit but also a song with which he will always be associated. "Came about by accident," Ray recalls. "Had me a driver who'd always hear me humming 'Georgia On My Mind.' Cat said, 'You hum it so much, why don't you record it?' 'Can't record it,' I said, "cause I don't even know the words.' 'Well, the words are easier enough to find.' He was right. Man, he didn't know how right he was. There was other good shit on that Road album, but nobody played nothing but 'Georgia.'"

"Georgia On My Mind" altered the direction of Ray's career. He'd proved he could be equally successful singing a standard written outside his original genre of blues or rhythm & blues. Ray's ability to turn Hoagy Carmichael's 1930 piece of Southern nostalgia into a 1960 smash convinced him that the songbook was wide open; he could choose from a world of material, no matter what category, and personalize it to the point where fans felt he had actually written the song himself. This marks the virtual retirement of Ray the songwriter and the ascension of Ray the interpreter. He approaches the subject today with absolute clarity.

"Easier for me to find songs someone else wrote," he explains, "than to write them myself. Remember, I was writing when I had to. When I didn't, I could focus on singing. Besides, other writers can say things I can't express myself."

On his second ABC album, Ray came up with another "jivey" concept—songs with women's names. "I keep it simple," says the man. "I like lots of women, I like thinking of women when I'm singing, so I wanna cut a whole album of women's names." "Ruby," the follow-up ballad to "Georgia," was another strong pop seller.

Meanwhile, ABC was not unmindful of Ray's jazz side. In fact, they commissioned an album which mirrors his Genius sessions at Atlantic and, in some ways, surpasses them. Genius + Soul = Jazz is a milestone and still another Ray Charles masterpiece. Brought out on Impulse!, an ABC subsidiary label (where John Coltrane, who also switched from Atlantic in this same time slot, continued to expand his sound), Genius + Soul represents some of Ray's most inspired work. The big surprise—and delight—is that he's playing the Hammond B3 organ, long considered the funkiest of keyboards. What prompted the move?

Ray laughs at the question. "Sweetheart," he says, "wish I could give answers that sound reasonable and right, but the honest truth is that it's something I just wanted to do. I thought that an organ against the Basie big band might give me some drama. And the old man," he adds, referring to himself, "is always looking for drama."

The two tracks included here are killers, surefire candidates for a time capsule containing the most gripping 20th century art. "I've Got News For You" is a Ralph Burns chart custom-made for Ray and the Basie band (with the addition of Ray's trumpeter Phil Guilbeau). From the swamp fever of the organ intro to the blaring brass to the impassioned vocal and world-wise lyric, "News" is a barnstorming blues, magnificently constructed and faithful to the quirky persona of Mr. C. "You wore a diamond watch/Claimed it was from Uncle Joe/When I looked at the inscription/It said, 'Love, from Daddy-O'" are words no reasonable listener will ever forget. And Quincy Jones wrote the arrangements for "One Mint Julep," which became Ray's first Top 10 instrumental hit.

In the early '60s, before the rise of Motown and Stax/Volt, at a time when pop music seemed especially saccharine, Ray was turning out a masterwork a month. On the heels of "Georgia On My Mind," "Ruby," "One Mint Julep," "Hit The Road Jack," and "Unchain My Heart," he was finally financially secure.

"First thing I did when I saw the bread," he asserts, "was get my own big band. Dreamt of having a big band for years. Always got excited by big bands. The ultimate backup for a singer is a big band. I love when my voice bounces off a big band. My first one was a bitch. Naturally I kept the cats from the small band—Fathead, Leroy, Wilkerson, Belgrave. Guilbeau. Milt Turner, Edgar Willis - and just added on till I got the 17 pieces I wanted. Hank Crawford became musical director. Later Leroy Cooper would take over that role. Quincy gave me a bunch of charts, and Hank and I wrote a bunch of our own. Look out, I was in business!"

Since the summer of 1961, the business of Ray Charles' big band has been booming. He tours the world with the unit even if, on occasion, he will bring only a trio to a symphony date. "My first choice," he says, "is always the band. It's an extension of me, like the piano, like my voice."


Just when it seemed Ray had done all there was to do, he did more. He made a move that surprised everyone but himself. He moved as far as he could from R&B, jazz, and standard songbook ballads, while still remaining in the realm of pop. He did what no other blues-based black singer had done before; he not only recorded country & western music, but, by virtue of his unprecedented success in the genre, he single-handedly gave it a mass appeal it had never before known. "Ray took country music to the world," says Willie Nelson. "And in some way the rest of us country singers are riding on his coattails."

"Didn't have any of that in mind," says Ray. "Wasn't trying to change the world. Just wanted to sing songs I loved. Had always loved. Had always felt were part of my growing up. After all, I'm a country boy. Of course I knew ABC had signed me for R&B. But 'Georgia' and 'Ruby' were more than R&B hits. They took me somewhere else. So now I figured I could go where I wanted. When I told Sam Clark about the idea, he wasn't sure. He thought I'd lose my fan base. 'If I do it right, Sam,' I said, 'I'll gain more fans than I lose.' Well, I guess I did it right, 'cause I had some monster hits."

"I Can't Stop Loving You," for example, shot to #1 on the pop chart in 1962 and stayed there for five weeks. Some purists claimed the white background singers were too syrupy. But Ray's black fans didn't agree; they kept it at #1 on the R&B chart for 16 weeks, a record.

"Funny, I didn't put the record together by trying to please the public," Ray notes. "I never do. I'm looking to please me. Keep in mind, this was just another jivey concept, like the names of cities or women. This was Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music. I had Sid Feller, my great friend and arranger, find me a mess of country songs. Sid researched the hell out of it and came up with 250 tunes.

"I went for the lyrics. Take 'You Don't Know Me.' I mean, here's a man telling I 'his woman something she needs to hear. And saying it in a poetry that brings a tear to your eye. I've been singing 'Take These Chains From My Heart' for 35 years now. and the goddamn thing still breaks me up. Brother, these are some sad songs.

"As a genuine fan of country music, there were other songs I knew and I associated, with certain singers I loved. But I was stupid enough to figure I could do [them] in my own way. Take Buck Owens' 'Crying Time.' Didn't sing the song out of disrespect for Buck. I'm crazy about Buck. But I heard something that fit my style. The key was keeping my style while watching my style work in different ways."

In spite of the shifting styles in pop music — Motown, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Stones - Ray's country material proved tremendously popular for most of the '60s. In 1962, after cutting Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, Volume 2, he moved into the office building and studio he occupies today and headquartered himself in L.A. He would settle into a routine that would remain constant over the next four decades. Working a steady nine or ten months a year, gigging around the globe, he'd reserve the heavy winter months for TV appearances and recording, but, in truth, he would record all year long . He has been known to fly in from Paris, squeeze in a few hours of recording in his L.A. studio, then fly right back out to Rome. Like women, recording has remained his lifelong obsession. (Married twice, he has fathered nine children with seven women.)

In 1963 Ray reentered the kingdom of rhythm & blues with Ingredients In A Recipe For Soul. "Busted" was the big song from the album. Sid Feller, Ray's principal arranger in the '60s, produced the session. But Feller, like Wexler before him, gives production credit to Ray. "Ray always knew exactly what he wanted," says Feller, "and exactly how to get it. I was a facilitator. I could read him. I was honored to serve him. Things like 'Busted,' though, came out of Ray's guts. He created the ambience; he sold the song."

"Now that's a song," says Ray, "that takes me all the way back to Greenville. I got it off Johnny Cash, but put it in a blues bag. I know you're tired of me harping on lyrics, but lyrics are the key. Those lyrics hit me hard. No matter how much money I got, when I sing, 'My bills are all due and the baby needs shoes and I'm busted"

"Busted" was another big hit, rising to #4 on the pop chart. Like "Georgia" and "What’d I Say," "Busted" remains part of practically every Ray Charles show some 35 years after it was recorded.

As the '60s; wore on, it became clear that Ray saw his role as interpretive vocalist rather than original writer. His originality was — is, and forever will be — in interpretation. His willingness, even his bravery, in tackling old songs other singers might consider hackneyed became a trademark.

This is also the time when Ray’s self-medication came to an end. His heroin habit had him at odds with the law, and, after several busts, he checked into a hospital and kicked, cold turkey. The year of his rehabilitation, 1965, is the only one in his five-decade career when he did not tour.

In 1966 the freshly formed songwriting team of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who would later enjoy great success at Motown and eventual solo stardom of their own, brought Ray two songs, both blues variations and both brilliant. In an age when pot was the crop of growing preference, "Let's Go Get Stoned" offered just the right twist.


The rock rebellion that swept the pop world coincided with the Golden Age of Soul. Looking back at both movements—the dominance of The Beatles and Stones and ascension of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin—it is clear that Ray Charles had become a beacon for both camps. Few would argue that he was the most influential voice of the past quarter-century. And just as Louis Armstrong had taught the world that the jazz aesthetic was applicable to any song, Ray showed that soul was every bit as universal. Legions of spirited white singers, from Steve Winwood to Joe Cocker to Rod Stewart, would build careers on the essential Ray Charles style. And he was equally as important in the world of black music. "Everyone at Motown idolized Ray," said Marvin Gaye. "He had both the commercial success and raw feeling we were all looking for. He was the man."

As the '60s grew more intense, as politics infused the music and protests hit the streets, Ray kept a steady course. His initial stylistic innovations—his gospel-soul-jazz-country synthesis—was a historical fact. Major innovations no longer interested him. But songs did. Songs always would.

"Like everyone else, I listened to The Beatles," he remembers. "At first they didn't kill me. But I saw soon they could write. Their ballads started speaking to me. Their ballads were serious. So I sang 'Yesterday,' and I'm gonna keep singing it."


In the early '70s Ray cut an album with a political theme, A Message From The People. In the age of dissent, the selections have something of an edge, but the big surprise—and the enduring interpretation—is "America The Beautiful." Asked whether it was his idea to sing the song, Ray replies, "Yes, darling, who else's idea would it be?" He goes on to tell the story: "Some of the verses were just too white for me, so I cut them out and sang the verses about the beauty of the country and the bravery of the soldiers. Then I put a little country church backbeat on it and turned it my way."

The result is another Ray Charles classic, another reformulated piece of Americana that he has sung hundreds of times since its initial release. Some hear irony in his interpretation, but Ray claims to be playing it straight. "I'm the first to say this country is racist to the bone," he states plainly, "but that doesn't mean I can't be patriotic. For all the bullshit about America, I still work and live here in comfort."

In the '80s Ray switched gears by signing with CBS Nashville and producer Billy Sherrill. "When I first sang country music in the '60s," says Ray, "I had lots of string and a chorus of singers. This time I wanted to do more downhome country, with the real Nashville cats in the studio. Wanted to hear those crying steel guitars. Was looking for a purer approach."

From Friendship, an album of duets, and the pairing with Willie Nelson came "Seven Spanish Angels," Ray's first major hit in over a decade. "Went down to Willie's ranch in Texas," Ray remembers, "and cut it right there in his studio. Singing with Willie is just as easy as talking with Willie. Hung out for a couple of days, just to play chess with [him]. If he'll only admit I'm the better chess player, we'd be all right."

Ray has a knack for high visibility, no matter what his chart action. Later in the '80s he recorded "I'll Be Good To You," a Johnson Brothers hit from an earlier era, as a Quincy Jones - produced duet with Chaka Khan. Just like that, he was back on the charts.

Ray is a man of absolute routine; his life is a matter of touring and recording. He's been doing so for 50 years and, in his own words, "I'll be doing it till I drop." Today has been different. Today he willingly answered questions, listened to old recordings, and reflected on his past. Now he has tired of doing so. "Not that I don't like my old records," he says. "I already told you that I love me. That means that I love my music. But the music I love the most is the music I'm in the middle of doing. See, I gotta get back there to the studio."

In the rear of his building, Ray's studio, were it not equipped with a state-of-the-art 48-track board, could compete with Sun Studio in Memphis or the West Grand Motown studio in Detroit as a monument of recording history. It feels like living history. The decor is absolutely plain; the vibe is early '60s. The small room on the engineering side of the glass, where Ray has spent God only knows how many hours for the past 35 years, is charged with his electricity. He loves the mechanics of his music as much as the soul of his songs. He starts turning switches, pushing buttons, adjusting levels. He plays some recent stuff, songs he performed at a Ferragamo fashion show in Milan, songs he's preparing for a new record—R&B songs, country songs, standards he wants to include on a jazz album he's been planning for years.

"So you see," he says, indicating it's time for you to leave, time for him to get back to doing what he does best, "I've still got a lifetime of music ahead of me."

— David Ritz
David Ritz co-wrote Brother Ray with Ray Charles in addition to writing biographies of B.B. King, Marvin Gave, Etta James, Smokey Robinson, and Jerry Wexler. Ritz is currently working with Aretha Franklin and the Neville Brothers on their memoirs.
[This is an edited, updated version of the liner note essay that first appeared in Rhino's 1997 Ray Charles: Genius & Soul—The 50th Anniversary Collection box set]

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Long March

What the civil-rights movement looked like when it was still happening
by Nicholas Lemann

The New Yorker, February 10, 2003

The recent fall of a Senate majority leader for the crime of praising a centenarian colleague who had once been a leader of the segregationist movement made for an excellent demonstration of the marvelous, and misleading, clarity of historical retrospection. Everybody now knows, it seems, that the civil-rights movement was a good thing, and that its opponents were so patently wrong that, unless they are elaborately penitent, they can have no place in our public life. (At the same time, it would have been fine for Trent Lott to send off Strom Thurmond — whom everybody in Washington had long been treating as a lovable huggy-bear — with an encomium to his wonderfulness, as long as it didn't specifically mention the main cause with which he was associated.)

The rules of acceptable political behavior were not at all so clear at the time. In the South, when civil rights was still an open question only a brave few Democrats supported it, and one is hard pressed to think of any Republicans who did. In 1964, the Republican Presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, ran as an opponent of mandatory school desegregation and of the landmark Civil Rights Act, which Congress had just passed. George H. W. Bush, campaigning for the Senate that year, came out against the Civil Rights Act. Ronald Reagan, then a popular conservative speaker preparing to run for governor of California, strongly opposed it. During the Lott affair, the commentator Charles Krauthammer, in a dump-Lott column in the Washington Post, wrote that neoconservatives like him "oppose affirmative action on grounds of colorblindness and in defense of the original vision of the civil rights movement: judging people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin." As Krauthammer surely knows from firsthand experience, movements and their visions always look a lot simpler from the outside and after the fact. If the civil-rights movement were suddenly to reappear as it really was, political officeholders would no more be unanimously for it than they were at the time.

The event that Krauthammer was obliquely referring to by bringing up the content of character and the color of skin was the March on Washington in August, 1963, where Martin Luther King, Jr., made his magnificent "I Have a Dream" speech, from which that line comes. The march was originally planned by the movement's radical wing, which was going to end the day by having the marchers move, en masse and unlawfully, into the hallways of the Capitol. A series of compromises brought the movement’s moderate wing (the N.A.A.C.P, the Urban League, and the United Automobile Workers, as well as King himself) on board. Still, the chief organizer was the former Communist and still socialist Bayard Rustin, who tided the event the "March for Jobs and Freedom" — and what he meant by "jobs and freedom" was a degree of state intervention in the economy that nobody would dare propose today. The long list of those who appeared onstage at the march included Bob Dylan, Walter Reuther, Roy Wilkins, Josephine Baker, Odetta, Marlon Brando, A. Philip Randolph, and Charlton Heston. By the time King spoke, much of the crowd had drifted away. The big behind-the-scenes drama centered on John Lewis, who was then the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and is now a veteran congressman from Georgia. Lewis had drafted a speech that said, "We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did.... We shall pursue our own scorched-earth policy." Washington's Catholic archbishop refused to give the invocation unless Lewis toned it down, and finally, under heavy pressure from the organizers, he did. So even the era's most celebrated moment was not nearly as consensual as everybody now remembers.

The Library of America's new, two-volume anthology "Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963" (vol.1) and "Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1963-1973" (vol.2) is a useful corrective to the way memory has domesticated the movement. As one reads through a hundred and eighty-eight chronologically ordered articles, the movement's true messiness, radicalism, internal disorganization, high failure rate, and lack of internal agreement become manifest. These are absorbing volumes even if read straight through, and they make for a valuable reference work that will reward occasional dipping in. There are, inevitably, moments of hokey overwriting — "Once more down the old familiar highways into that passionately alive and violent country," Karl Fleming begins a piece in Newsweek, and he's soon on to days of smothering heat and nights of honeysuckle — but fewer than you'd expect. It helps that the Library of America's anonymous compilers have not taken the terms "reporting" and "journalism" literally: they have supplemented the newspaper stuff with lots of essays, memoirs, manifestos, and book excerpts, and without them the anthology wouldn't be nearly as good. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," James Baldwins "The Fire Next Time," the reminiscences of Lillian Smith and Anne Moody, John Howard Griffin's "Black Like Me" — who would have wanted a definition of "reporting civil rights" so strict that it excluded them?

Many famous bylines — Joan Didion, David Halberstam, Tom Wicker, Hunter S. Thompson, John Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, John Hersey, Garry Wills, and Alice Walker, to name a few—appear in "Reporting Civil Rights," but it's a particular pleasure to read less well-known writers whose work, at least in these pages, is just as good or better. Journalists I didn't start reading until they were in the settled columnist-essayist phase of their careers — like Carl T. Rowan and Dan Wakefield — appear here as reporters on the scene. The Negro press, which was then vital and important, is well represented, with first-rate articles from the Pittsburgh Courier, the Baltimore Afro-American, and the New York Amsterdam News, among others, and there is a lot of material that demonstrates what a loss it was when the big-format mass magazines Life, Look, Colliers, and The Saturday Evening Post went out of business. Among the specific attractions of the volumes are contributions by Louis E. Lomax, writing as a secret sharer about life inside the black establishment; Michael Thelwell, who performs a similar function for the radical student movement, and also writes beautifully; August Meier, who contributed a very smart essay on King, which, as a work of analysis, stands out in a collection that is naturally much stronger on dramatic firsthand description; and William Bradford Huie, the hot-blooded investigative reporter who bribed confessions out of the murderers of Emmett Till. The outstanding piece of investigative reporting is an hour-by-hour inside account of the integration of the University of Mississippi, in 1962. The authors, George B. Leonard, T. George Harris, and Christopher S. Wren, convey both the terrifying violence and danger of that event (for a while, it looked as if the segregationist mob would actually defeat the federal forces) and the duplicity of Governor Ross Barnett, who kept making and breaking deals with the Kennedy Administration while the situation in Oxford spun out of control.

What's most valuable about "Reporting Civil Rights" is that it provides a history of the civil-rights movement written by people who weren't allowed to peek ahead to the ending. All the complexity and contingency of the movement comes through; it becomes hard to argue that the movement was centrally about the kind of color-blind, meritocratic ideology implied by King's "content of our character" rhetoric. Even the name is misleading, because it implies that overturning the South’s Jim Crow laws was the one great, agreed-upon cause. As "Reporting Civil Rights" makes clear, there were several distinct elements within the movement: Old Lefties, including some Communists; New Lefties; labor unionists; black nationalists; church people; and liberal do-gooders. Hence the movement's many contending and sometimes conflicting goals, among them changes in the structure of Negro leadership (in particular, unseating the N.A.A.C.P. from its traditional position of dominance), a remaking of black consciousness, left-wing economic policies, better jobs and better housing for blacks, and black political power. Although the movement was biracial, and wouldn't have succeeded if it hadn't been, its white and black members generally had different views of what its main purpose was — the whites being much more likely to think of color blindness and integration as the goals, the blacks being more likely to think in terms of racial advancement. King made a point of befriending Malcolm X, who regularly said that he wasn't interested in civil rights or integration; and King's well-publicized association with Stokely Carmichael, of SNCC, didn't end when, in 1966, Carmichael unveiled the electrifying, polarizing, and implicitly non-nonviolent phrase "black power," during a march that featured them both. When the movement succeeded, it wasn't completely clear which element was winning, and that ambiguity survives today — it's why both sides in the affirmative-action fight, for example, can claim to be pursuing the true goals of the civil-rights movement.

The racial problem that makes the strongest impression in the pages of "Reporting Civil Rights" is not legal segregation (which many African-Americans didn't mind then and feel nostalgic about now) but something more basic: fear and a lack of dignity. It seems almost too obvious to mention that during Jim Crow black people in the South did not have reliable recourse to the legal system; even if most whites were benign, those who weren't could do anything they wanted to a Negro and get away with it. Violence within the black community usually went officially unpunished, so it, too, was relatively risk-free for the perpetrators. The corrosive terror of living with the constant possibility of unpunishable vigilantism comes across vividly in "Reporting Civil Rights." In 1942, Hugh Gloster, a professor of English at Morehouse College, was taken off a bus in Mississippi and beaten so badly that he had to be taken to the hospital — not a crime. In 1961, Herbert Lee, a Negro cotton farmer in Mississippi who had tried to register to vote, was shot in the head at point-blank range, in a public place in broad daylight, by a white state legislator — not a crime. This sort of low-grade, and sometimes not so low-grade, terrorism continued through the sixties. In Oxford in 1962, segregationist snipers fired freely on members of the National Guard. In Jackson in 1963, Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the Mississippi N.A.A.C.P., was gunned down in front of his house. The 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that killed four girls came at the end of fifty anti-Negro bombings, all unsolved by the local authorities. In Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964, three young civil-rights workers were murdered by the Klan, and their bodies buried in a dam, with the active support of the town's top law-enforcement officials. And these were cases involving respectable middle-class people, not the vulnerable black poor, who had it far worse. In "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," written just a few months before the "I Have a Dream" speech, King conveys this sense of indignity and exposure with remarkable power:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society . . . when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, never quite knowing what to expect next, and you are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

The problem that King is discussing here is, in some ways, a very old one: black people had never been treated the same as everybody else in America. But the period of waiting really dated back to Reconstruction. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and Congress and the states passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, in 1865. The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) gave the freed slaves legal rights, and the Fifteenth (1870) gave them the right to vote. The former Confederacy accepted the Thirteenth Amendment, but though it voted for the others, it nullified them in practice. During Reconstruction, it became obvious that, especially in the deep South, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments would be without effect unless federal troops came to the South and enforced them at gunpoint. Support for this died out quickly in the North and never existed in the South, and the last time it happened in post-bellum America was in January, 1875, in New Orleans and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Reconstruction ended formally, in 1877, on the explicit understanding that the federal government would no longer intervene militarily to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

This bargain that the South made with the nation as a whole — Thirteenth Amendment yes, Fourteenth and Fifteenth no — was durable to the point of seeming unchangeable. For much of the twentieth century, civil rights for Negroes weren't even on the liberal agenda. President Woodrow Wilson honored D. W. Griffith's pro-Klan "Birth of a Nation" with a White House screening. President Franklin Roosevelt, who was probably the most powerful liberal politician in American history, and whose wife was a crusader on the subject, did not attempt to dismantle segregation. The South was an essential element in the Democratic Party's coalition, after all; and the country as a whole was, at best, unused to thinking of segregation as a problem. So the civil-rights movement had to pursue a series of related projects: awakening the long-slumbering racial conscience of non-Southern white Americans; organizing the black South politically by nontraditional means (since most black Southerners were prohibited from voting); changing the consciousness of all of black America to be less accepting of the situation; and, critically important, persuading the federal government not just to endorse the movement's goals but to use its power to enforce them.

The anthology's first document is A. Philip Randolph's call, in 1941, for a march on Washington "for jobs and equal participation in national defense" (Franklin Roosevelt, through persuasion and concession, forestalled the march), and following it are a number of pieces demonstrating that attempts to erase informal "color lines" in the housing and job markets, Negro voter-registration efforts in the South, and the refusal of blacks to sit in the back of the bus all predated what we now think of as the beginning of the civil-rights movement. The struggle was necessarily waged on many fronts, and one of the most important was the press; in fact, as "Reporting Civil Rights" reminds us, much of the press was effectively part of the movement, and an indispensable part. One reason that the Montgomery bus boycott was a breakthrough was that it made Martin Luther King the movement's first true media star. King was shockingly young and oratorically spectacular, and the national press — in particular, Time and Life — conferred a celebrity status on him that it had never given A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Bayard Rustin, Thurgood Marshall, or any of the movement's earlier leaders. King and his advisers had a genius for generating publicity that engaged the sympathies of liberal whites in the North. It wasn't just the strategy of nonviolence and the rhetoric of hope and redemption that made King successful; it was the staging of events in order to play to the national audience. King's local attempts to achieve broad-gauge progress for blacks failed repeatedly in Northern cities like Chicago and Cleveland; in Southern towns like Albany, Georgia, and St. Augustine, Florida; and even, arguably, in the movement's sacred sites, like Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma. But King was great at losing the battle while winning the war — in August Meier's phrase, at producing "local failure and national victory." The ongoing real-life morality play he mounted — in which civil-rights heroes contended with white-resistance villains like Bull Connor, Jim Clark, and George Wallace — profoundly affected events in Washington. The real fruit of the Birmingham campaign was the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the real fruit of the Selma campaign the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The movement's success depended upon a ricochet effect among the various power centers of American society, and the press was only one of them. Thurgood Marshall and the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund began filing lawsuits against segregated educational institutions back in the thirties. The Second World War subjected Northern black soldiers to Southern segregation (both in the military, which maintained segregated units throughout the war, and in the civilian world, when they were on leave) and gave Southern black soldiers a taste of life outside the Jim Crow system, and this, thanks in part to publicity in the Negro press, inflamed black public opinion. These wartime sentiments produced federal anti-discrimination executive orders signed by Roosevelt and Harry Truman. They helped spur the very early interstate bus rides by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The Brown decision helped inspire the Montgomery movement. The Montgomery movement's success and the attendant publicity contributed to President Eisenhower's decision to send federal troops to Little Rock. And so on. This kind of multilayered, cross-jurisdictional activity was necessary because the opposition to the movement was a lot more powerful and sophisticated than the gap-toothed Klansmen and corpulent small-town sheriffs who were its public foils. The Brown cases, for example, pitted Marshall against, among others, a former Secretary of State, James F Byrnes, and a former Democratic Presidential nominee, John W. Davis; our current Chief Justice, then a Supreme Court law clerk, wrote a memorandum to his boss laying out a justification for a dissent from the unanimous decision.

Reporting Civil Rights" has a few lacunae (where's Gunnar Myrdal?), but the most important absence is of material hostile to the civil-rights movement. Having made the decision not to limit themselves to journalism per se, the editors had the opportunity to give us some flavor of the conversation among the movements adversaries, as they do so well for the conversation among its allies. But the ideological range of the pieces runs from journalistic-neutral to left; by my count, there are only two contributions from conservatives, Norman Podhoretz's "My Negro Problem — And Ours," and Tom Wolfe's "Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers," and neither of those writers was so identified at the time that he published his article. Only one piece in "Reporting Civil Rights," a long, overwrought excerpt from a 1956 book by Robert Penn Warren called "Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South," gets across the feeling of the respectable white sentiment that I grew up around in Louisiana — opposed to civil rights, but with a paternalism that was deeply convinced of its own benevolence and painful honesty about the race problem, and deeply embarrassed by the lynchings and snarling mobs that were what the North knew of segregationism. (If only the movement had been more patient, the patrician white South thought, it wouldn't have brought such creatures crawling out of the swamp.) It’s true that, as several contributions say in passing, a good deal of the written case against civil rights took the form of crude mimeographs and newsletters, but there were also publications, like the Dan Smoot Report and the John Birch Society's American Opinion, that were hardly less mainstream than, on the left, the Southern Patriot or Ramparts, which did make the cut for "Reporting Civil Rights" — and there was the entirely presentable work of James J. Kilpatrick, then the editorial-page editor of the Richmond News Leader, and soon to be a familiar Washington columnist and television personality. Here's a passage from his 1962 book "The Southern Case for School Segregation":

Manifestly, the resistance to a coerced racial "equality" is wide and deep. Why is this so? The answer, in blunt speech, is that the Negro race, as a race, has not earned equality. And as I have attempted to argue earlier, it is a feeble and evasive response to accuse the white critic, in making that flat statement, of emulating the child who shot his parents and then pleaded for mercy as an orphan. The failure of the Negro race, as a race, to achieve equality cannot be blamed wholly on white oppression. This is the excuse, the crutch, the piteous and finally pathetic defense of Negrophiles unable or willing to face reality. In other times and other places, sturdy, creative, and self-reliant minorities have carved out their own destiny; they have compelled acceptance on their own merit; they have demonstrated those qualities of leadership and resourcefulness and disciplined ambition that in the end cannot ever be denied. But the Negro race, as a race, has done none of this.

The white South’s argument against the civil-rights movement always had at least three elements: in addition to the racial one that Kilpatrick was making, there was the idea that the movement was a Trojan horse filled with Communists and other radicals who wanted to change society wholesale, and there was opposition to the use of federal power to overturn local customs. You almost never see sentiments like Kirkpatricks in print anymore, and the radical left no longer presents a plausible danger, but hostility toward the federal government is a far more important element in American conservatism today than it was during the civil-rights movement. At a time when the movement begins to seem safe, neutral, and inarguable, it's worth recalling that coercive federal power really was crucial to its success. The civil-rights revolution reestablished the principle that the federal government would, after nearly a century's retreat, again assume responsibility for enforcing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in the South. In Congress, the bitterest fights about civil-rights legislation were always over the question of federal enforcement power, which, for the South, was the most objectionable aspect. The 1957 Civil Rights Act is relatively little remembered because the enforcement provisions were stripped out before Congress passed it; the 1964 act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were landmarks, and finally made the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments real in the South, precisely because they provided for federal enforcement. Federal troops were present at one milestone event after another during the movement's heyday — indeed, their arrival was the milestone. You have to wonder how, in a country that has become far more suspicious of the federal government, they'd be received today.

The glory days of the civil-rights movement came to an end in the summer of 1965. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which signalled the progression of black Southerners from an oppressed caste to an interest group; on August 11th, in Los Angeles, the Watts riot—vividly and terrifyingly described in several pieces in "Reporting Civil Rights" — broke out. The riot lasted most of a week and left thirty-four people dead, in addition to destroying much of a large black neighborhood and much of white America's store of racial good will. After Watts, the bulk of the material in "Reporting Civil Rights" is a dispiriting succession of riots, murders (including King's), unsuccessful campaigns, renunciations of nonviolence, factionalism, and black-white fights. (In 1966, John Lewis, the firebrand of the March on Washington, was ousted from SNCC for being too moderate.) But the summer of 1965 wasn't so obvious a turning point within the movement at the time as it now appears to have been, and the anthology makes it clear why not. Nearly everything about the movement was improvised and almost accidental. The two shimmering peaks of King's career were the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, which ended in a speech arguably even more dramatic and better than "I Have a Dream" — the one delivered from the steps of the Alabama state capitol, with a refrain of "How long? Not long." But King had originally planned to skip the Selma-to-Montgomery march; only when the situation escalated did he realize that he had made a mistake and rush to the scene. Given that none of the important organizations in the civil-rights movement thought that its purpose was limited to achieving "civil rights," the movement couldn't declare victory after the Voting Rights Act and go home; instead, for all its successes, it had to endure the pain of failure, a sense of what had not yet been achieved.

Even now, it would be a mistake to think that civil rights belongs to the realm of settled opinion, requiring of us only the kind of easy, post-facto approval that Trent Lott managed to bungle. The Supreme Court is about to hear arguments in a monumental case on affirmative action in university admissions. The institutional defendant is the University of Michigan, but the case is the culmination of a string of conservative anti-affirmative-action activities that began in 1995 with something called the California Civil Rights Initiative, which used King as its patron saint until it became clear that King had actually been a supporter of affirmative action. Although I didn't notice a single reference to affirmative action, pro or con, in the nearly nineteen hundred pages of "Reporting Civil Rights," the Michigan case is really an organic continuation of the events described in these books. Beginning in the forties, at least part of the civil-rights movement devoted itself primarily to demanding more and better jobs for Negroes outside the segregated South. When these efforts were successful, the usual result was proto-affirmative-action policies by state fair-employment commissions, under which the ordinary job qualifications would be set aside so that Negroes could be hired. The spectre of such programs haunted the debate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the act contained an amendment prohibiting them. But, once it became law, the act quickly led to the establishment of federal affirmative-action programs, and no civil-rights organization, across a wide ideological range, seems to have objected.

The movement began with a struggle for political change without the benefit of either votes or public opinion, and it became expert at using the courts and regulatory agencies to get results that lacked popular support. It's doubtful whether a plebiscite would have approved affirmative action in the first place. But history rolls onward: today one can't run for national office as a Democrat without declaring support for affirmative action, as Senator Joseph Lieberman demonstrated when, on being nominated for Vice-President, he renounced his previous doubt; even President Bush has made a point of avoiding a frontal assault on affirmative action — for example, declining to ask the Supreme Court to use the Michigan cases as the occasion simply to ban the use of race in college admissions. Big social issues of this sort are always in contention. "Reporting Civil Rights" is really a chronicle of one long season in America's ongoing political battles over race. A major legacy of the civil-rights movement is that those battles are far less intense and destructive now than they were during the period covered in the anthology. But they are by no means over.

This Is How We Lost to the White Man

The audacity of Bill Cosby’s black conservatism

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Last summer, in Detroit’s St. Paul Church of God in Christ, I watched Bill Cosby summon his inner Malcolm X. It was a hot July evening. Cosby was speaking to an audience of black men dressed in everything from Enyce T-shirts or polos to blazers and ties. Some were there with their sons. Some were there in wheelchairs. The audience was packed tight, rows of folding chairs extended beyond the wooden pews to capture the overflow. But the chairs were not enough, and late arrivals stood against the long shotgun walls, or out in the small lobby, where they hoped to catch a snatch of Cosby’s oratory. Clutching a cordless mic, Cosby paced the front of the church, shifting between prepared remarks and comic ad-libs. A row of old black men, community elders, sat behind him, nodding and grunting throaty affirmations. The rest of the church was in full call-and-response mode, punctuating Cosby’s punch lines with laughter, applause, or cries of “Teach, black man! Teach!”

He began with the story of a black girl who’d risen to become valedictorian of his old high school, despite having been abandoned by her father. “She spoke to the graduating class and her speech started like this,” Cosby said. “‘I was 5 years old. It was Saturday and I stood looking out the window, waiting for him.’ She never said what helped turn her around. She never mentioned her mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother.”
“Understand me,” Cosby said, his face contorted and clenched like a fist. “Men? Men? Men! Where are you, men?”
Audience: “Right here!”

Cosby had come to Detroit aiming to grab the city’s black men by their collars and shake them out of the torpor that has left so many of them—like so many of their peers across the country—undereducated, over-incarcerated, and underrepresented in the ranks of active fathers. No women were in the audience. No reporters were allowed, for fear that their presence might frighten off fathers behind on their child-support payments. But I was there, trading on race, gender, and a promise not to interview any of the allegedly skittish participants.
“Men, if you want to win, we can win,” Cosby said. “We are not a pitiful race of people. We are a bright race, who can move with the best. But we are in a new time, where people are behaving in abnormal ways and calling it normal … When they used to come into our neighborhoods, we put the kids in the basement, grabbed a rifle, and said, ‘By any means necessary.’ “I don’t want to talk about hatred of these people,” he continued. “I’m talking about a time when we protected our women and protected our children. Now I got people in wheelchairs, paralyzed. A little girl in Camden, jumping rope, shot through the mouth. Grandmother saw it out the window. And people are waiting around for Jesus to come, when Jesus is already within you.”

Cosby was wearing his standard uniform—dark sunglasses, loafers, a sweat suit emblazoned with the seal of an institution of higher learning. That night it was the University of Massachusetts, where he’d gotten his doctorate in education 30 years ago. He was preaching from the book of black self-reliance, a gospel that he has spent the past four years carrying across the country in a series of events that he bills as “call-outs.” “My problem,” Cosby told the audience, “is I’m tired of losing to white people. When I say I don’t care about white people, I mean let them say what they want to say. What can they say to me that’s worse than what their grandfather said?”
From Birmingham to Cleveland and Baltimore, at churches and colleges, Cosby has been telling thousands of black Americans that racism in America is omnipresent but that it can’t be an excuse to stop striving. As Cosby sees it, the antidote to racism is not rallies, protests, or pleas, but strong families and communities. Instead of focusing on some abstract notion of equality, he argues, blacks need to cleanse their culture, embrace personal responsibility, and reclaim the traditions that fortified them in the past. Driving Cosby’s tough talk about values and responsibility is a vision starkly different from Martin Luther King’s gauzy, all-inclusive dream: it’s an America of competing powers, and a black America that is no longer content to be the weakest of the lot.

It’s heady stuff, especially coming from the man white America remembers as a sitcom star and affable pitchman for E. F. Hutton, Kodak, and Jell-O Pudding Pops. And Cosby’s race-based crusade is particularly jarring now. Across the country, as black politics has become more professionalized, the rhetoric of race is giving way to the rhetoric of standards and results. Newark’s young Ivy League–educated mayor, Cory Booker, ran for office promising competence and crime reduction, as did Washington’s mayor, Adrian Fenty. Indeed, we are now enjoying a moment of national self-congratulation over racial progress, with a black man running for president as the very realization of King’s dream. Barack Obama defied efforts by the Clinton campaign to pigeonhole him as a “black” candidate, casting himself instead as the symbol of a society that has moved beyond lazy categories of race.

Black America does not entirely share the euphoria, though. The civil-rights generation is exiting the American stage—not in a haze of nostalgia but in a cloud of gloom, troubled by the persistence of racism, the apparent weaknesses of the generation following in its wake, and the seeming indifference of much of the country to black America’s fate. In that climate, Cosby’s gospel of discipline, moral reform, and self-reliance offers a way out—a promise that one need not cure America of its original sin in order to succeed. Racism may not be extinguished, but it can be beaten.

Has Dr. Huxtable, the head of one of America’s most beloved television households, seen the truth: that the dream of integration should never supplant the pursuit of self-respect; that blacks should worry more about judging themselves and less about whether whites are judging them on the content of their character? Or has he lost his mind?

From the moment he registered in the American popular consciousness, as the Oxford-educated Alexander Scott in the NBC adventure series I Spy, Cosby proffered the idea of an America that transcended race. The series, which started in 1965, was the first weekly show to feature an African American in a lead role, but it rarely factored race into dialogue or plots. Race was also mostly inconspicuous in Cosby’s performances as a hugely popular stand-up comedian. “I don’t spend my hours worrying how to slip a social message into my act,” Cosby told Playboy in 1969. He also said that he didn’t “have time to sit around and worry whether all the black people of the world make it because of me. I have my own gig to worry about.” His crowning artistic and commercial achievement—The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992—was seemingly a monument to that understated sensibility.

In fact, blackness was never absent from the show or from Bill Cosby. Plots involved black artists like Stevie Wonder or Dizzy Gillespie. The Huxtables’ home was decorated with the works of black artists like Annie Lee, and the show featured black theater veterans such as Roscoe Lee Brown and Moses Gunn. Behind the scenes, Cosby hired the Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint to make sure that the show never trafficked in stereotypes and that it depicted blacks in a dignified light. Picking up Cosby’s fixation on education, Poussaint had writers insert references to black schools. “If the script mentioned Oberlin, Texas Tech, or Yale, we’d circle it and tell them to mention a black college,” Poussaint told me in a phone interview last year. “I remember going to work the next day and white people saying, ‘What’s the school called Morehouse?’” In 1985, Cosby riled NBC by placing an anti-apartheid sign in his Huxtable son’s bedroom. The network wanted no part of the debate. “There may be two sides to apartheid in Archie Bunker’s house,” the Toronto Star quoted Cosby as saying. “But it’s impossible that the Huxtables would be on any side but one. That sign will stay on that door. And I’ve told NBC that if they still want it down, or if they try to edit it out, there will be no show.” The sign stayed.

Offstage, Cosby’s philanthropy won him support among the civil-rights crowd. He made his biggest splash in 1988, when he and his wife gave $20 million to Spelman College, the largest individual donation ever given to a black college. “Two million would have been fantastic; 20 million, to use the language of the hip-hop generation, was off the chain,” says Johnnetta Cole, who was then president of Spelman. Race again came to the fore in 1997, when Cosby’s son was randomly shot and killed while fixing a flat on a Los Angeles freeway. His wife wrote an op-ed in USA Today arguing that white racism lay behind her son’s death. “All African-Americans, regardless of their educational and economic accomplishments, have been and are at risk in America simply because of their skin colors,” she wrote. “Most people know that facing the truth brings about healing and growth. When is America going to face its historical and current racial realities so it can be what it says it is?”

The column caused a minor row, but most of white America took little notice. To them, Cosby was still America’s Dad. But those close to Cosby were not surprised. Cosby was an avowed race man, who, like much of his generation, had come to feel that black America had lost its way. The crisis of absentee fathers, the rise of black-on-black crime, and the spread of hip-hop all led Cosby to believe that, after the achievements of the 1960s, the black community was committing cultural suicide.

His anger and frustration erupted into public view during an NAACP awards ceremony in Washington in 2004 commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. At that moment, the shades of mortality and irrelevance seemed to be drawing over the civil-rights generation. Its matriarchs, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, would be dead within two years. The NAACP’s membership rolls had been shrinking; within months, its president, Kweisi Mfume, would resign (it was later revealed that he was under investigation by the NAACP for sexual harassment and nepotism—allegations that he denied). Other movement leaders were drifting into self-parody: Al Sharpton would soon be hosting a reality show and, a year later, would be doing ads for a predatory loan company; Sharpton and Jesse Jackson had recently asked MGM to issue an apology for the hit movie Barbershop.

That night, Cosby was one of the last honorees to take the podium. He began by noting that although civil-rights activists had opened the door for black America, young people today, instead of stepping through, were stepping backward. “No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband,” he told the crowd. “No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child.” There was cheering as Cosby went on. Perhaps sensing that he had the crowd, he grew looser. “The lower-economic and lower-middle-economic people are not holding their end in this deal,” he told the audience.

Cosby disparaged activists who charge the criminal-justice system with racism. “These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake,” Cosby said. “Then we all run out and are outraged: ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else. And I looked at it and I had no money. And something called parenting said, ‘If you get caught with it, you’re going to embarrass your mother.’”

Then he attacked African American naming traditions, and the style of dress among young blacks: “Ladies and gentlemen, listen to these people. They are showing you what’s wrong … What part of Africa did this come from? We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans. They don’t know a damned thing about Africa— with names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed, and all that crap, and all of them are in jail.” About then, people began to walk out of the auditorium and cluster in the lobby. There was still cheering, but some guests milled around and wondered what had happened. Some thought old age had gotten the best of Cosby. The mood was one of shock.

After what has come to be known as “the Pound Cake speech”—it has its own Wikipedia entry—Cosby came under attack from various quarters of the black establishment. The playwright August Wilson commented, “A billionaire attacking poor people for being poor. Bill Cosby is a clown. What do you expect?” One of the gala’s hosts, Ted Shaw, the director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, called his comments “a harsh attack on poor black people in particular.” Dubbing Cosby an “Afristocrat in Winter,” the Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson came out with a book, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?, that took issue with Cosby’s bleak assessment of black progress and belittled his transformation from vanilla humorist to social critic and moral arbiter. “While Cosby took full advantage of the civil rights struggle,” argued Dyson, “he resolutely denied it a seat at his artistic table.”

But Cosby’s rhetoric played well in black barbershops, churches, and backyard barbecues, where a unique brand of conservatism still runs strong. Outsiders may have heard haranguing in Cosby’s language and tone. But much of black America heard instead the possibility of changing their communities without having to wait on the consciences and attention spans of policy makers who might not have their interests at heart. Shortly after Cosby took his Pound Cake message on the road, I wrote an article denouncing him as an elitist. When my father, a former Black Panther, read it, he upbraided me for attacking what he saw as a message of black empowerment. Cosby’s argument has resonated with the black mainstream for just that reason.

The split between Cosby and critics such as Dyson mirrors not only America’s broader conservative/liberal split but black America’s own historic intellectual divide. Cosby’s most obvious antecedent is Booker T. Washington. At the turn of the 20th century, Washington married a defense of the white South with a call for black self-reliance and became the most prominent black leader of his day. He argued that southern whites should be given time to adjust to emancipation; in the meantime, blacks should advance themselves not by voting and running for office but by working, and ultimately owning, the land.

W. E. B. Du Bois, the integrationist model for the Dysons of our day, saw Washington as an apologist for white racism and thought that his willingness to sacrifice the black vote was heretical. History ultimately rendered half of Washington’s argument moot. His famous Atlanta Compromise—in which he endorsed segregation as a temporary means of making peace with southerners—was answered by lynchings, land theft, and general racial terrorism. But Washington’s appeal to black self-sufficiency endured.

After Washington’s death, in 1915, the black conservative tradition he had fathered found a permanent and natural home in the emerging ideology of Black Nationalism. Marcus Garvey, its patron saint, turned the Atlanta Compromise on its head, implicitly endorsing segregation not as an olive branch to whites but as a statement of black supremacy. Black Nationalists scorned the Du Boisian integrationists as stooges or traitors, content to beg for help from people who hated them.

Garvey argued that blacks had rendered themselves unworthy of the white man’s respect. “The greatest stumbling block in the way of progress in the race has invariably come from within the race itself,” wrote Garvey. “The monkey wrench of destruction as thrown into the cog of Negro Progress, is not thrown so much by the outsider as by the very fellow who is in our fold, and who should be the first to grease the wheel of progress rather than seeking to impede.” Decades later, Malcolm X echoed that sentiment, faulting blacks for failing to take charge of their destinies. “The white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community,” Malcolm said. “But you will let anybody come in and take control of the economy of your community, control the housing, control the education, control the jobs, control the businesses, under the pretext that you want to integrate. No, you’re out of your mind.”

Black conservatives like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, have at times allied themselves with black liberals. But in general, they have upheld a core of beliefs laid out by Garvey almost a century ago: a skepticism of (white) government as a mediating force in the “Negro problem,” a strong belief in the singular will of black people, and a fixation on a supposedly glorious black past.

Those beliefs also animate Come On People, the manifesto that Cosby and Poussaint published last fall. Although it does not totally dismiss government programs, the book mostly advocates solutions from within as a cure for black America’s dismal vital statistics. “Once we find our bearings,” they write, “we can move forward, as we have always done, on the path from victims to victors.” Come On People is heavy on black pride (“no group of people has had the impact on the culture of the whole world that African Americans have had, and much of that impact has been for the good”), and heavier on the idea of the Great Fall—the theory, in this case, that post–Jim Crow blacks have lost touch with the cultural traditions that enabled them to persevere through centuries of oppression.

“For all the woes of segregation, there were some good things to come out of it,” Cosby and Poussaint write. “One was that it forced us to take care of ourselves. When restaurants, laundries, hotels, theaters, groceries, and clothing stores were segregated, black people opened and ran their own. Black life insurance companies and banks thrived, as well as black funeral homes … Such successes provided jobs and strength to black economic well-being. They also gave black people that gratifying sense of an interdependent community.” Although the authors take pains to put some distance between themselves and the Nation of Islam, they approvingly quote one of its ministers who spoke at a call-out in Compton, California: “I went to Koreatown today and I met with the Korean merchants,” the minister told the crowd. “I love them. You know why? They got a place called what? Koreatown. When I left them, I went to Chinatown. They got a place called what? Chinatown. Where is your town?”

The notion of the Great Fall, and the attendant theory that segregation gave rise to some “good things,” are the stock-in-trade of what Christopher Alan Bracey, a law professor at Washington University, calls (in his book, Saviors or Sellouts) the “organic” black conservative tradition: conservatives who favor hard work and moral reform over protests and government intervention, but whose black-nationalist leanings make them anathema to the Heritage Foundation and Rush Limbaugh. When political strategists argue that the Republican Party is missing a huge chance to court the black community, they are thinking of this mostly male bloc—the old guy in the barbershop, the grizzled Pop Warner coach, the retired Vietnam vet, the drunk uncle at the family reunion. He votes Democratic, not out of any love for abortion rights or progressive taxation, but because he feels—in fact, he knows—that the modern-day GOP draws on the support of people who hate him. This is the audience that flocks to Cosby: culturally conservative black Americans who are convinced that integration, and to some extent the entire liberal dream, robbed them of their natural defenses.

“There are things that we did not see coming,” Cosby told me over lunch in Manhattan last year. “Like, you could see the Klan, but because these things were not on a horse, because there was no white sheet, and the people doing the deed were not white, we saw things in the light of family and forgiveness … We didn’t pay attention to the dropout rate. We didn’t pay attention to the fathers, to the self-esteem of our boys.”

Given the state of black America, it is hard to quarrel with that analysis. Blacks are 13 percent of the population, yet black men account for 49 percent of America’s murder victims and 41 percent of the prison population. The teen birth rate for blacks is 63 per 1,000, more than double the rate for whites. In 2005, black families had the lowest median income of any ethnic group measured by the Census, making only 61 percent of the median income of white families.

Most troubling is a recent study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which concluded that the rate at which blacks born into the middle class in the 1960s backslid into poverty or near-poverty (45 percent) was three times that of whites—suggesting that the advances of even some of the most successful cohorts of black America remain tenuous at best. Another Pew survey, released last November, found that blacks were “less upbeat about the state of black progress now than at any time since 1983.”

The rise of the organic black conservative tradition is also a response to America’s retreat from its second attempt at Reconstruction. Blacks have watched as the courts have weakened affirmative action, arguably the country’s greatest symbol of state-sponsored inclusion. They’ve seen a fraudulent war on drugs that, judging by the casualties, looks like a war on black people. They’ve seen themselves bandied about as playthings in the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan (with his 1980 invocation of states’ rights” in Mississippi), George Bush (Willie Horton), Bill Clinton (Sister Souljah), and George W. Bush (McCain’s fabled black love-child). They’ve seen the utter failures of school busing and housing desegregation, as well as the horrors of Katrina. The result is a broad distrust of government as the primary tool for black progress.

In May 2004, just one day before Cosby’s Pound Cake speech, The New York Times visited Louisville, Kentucky, once ground zero in the fight to integrate schools. But TheTimes found that sides had switched, and that black parents were more interested in educational progress than in racial parity. “Integration? What was it good for?” one parent asked. “They were just setting up our babies to fail.”

In response to these perceived failures, many black activists have turned their efforts inward. Geoffrey Canada’s ambitious Harlem Children’s Zone project pushes black students to change their study habits and improve their home life. In cities like Baltimore and New York, community groups are focusing on turning black men into active fathers. In Philadelphia last October, thousands of black men packed the Liacouras Center, pledging to patrol their neighborhoods and help combat the rising murder rate. When Cosby came to St. Paul Church in Detroit, one local judge got up and urged Cosby and other black celebrities to donate more money to advance the cause. “I didn’t fly out here to write a check,” Cosby retorted. “I’m not writing a check in Houston, Detroit, or Philadelphia. Leave these athletes alone. All you know is Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jackson. Forget about a check … This is how we lost to the white man. ‘Judge said Bill Cosby is gonna write a check, but until then … ’”

Instead of waiting for handouts or outside help, Cosby argues, disadvantaged blacks should start by purging their own culture of noxious elements like gangsta rap, a favorite target. “What do record producers think when they churn out that gangsta rap with antisocial, women-hating messages?,” Cosby and Poussaint ask in their book. “Do they think that black male youth won’t act out what they have repeated since they were old enough to listen?” Cosby’s rhetoric on culture echoes—and amplifies—a swelling strain of black opinion: last November’s Pew study reported that 71 percent of blacks feel that rap is a bad influence.

The strain of black conservatism that Cosby evokes has also surfaced in the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Early on, some commentators speculated that Obama’s Cosby-esque appeals to personal responsibility would cost him black votes. But if his admonishments for black kids to turn off the PlayStation and for black fathers to do their jobs did him any damage, it was not reflected at the polls. In fact, this sort of rhetoric amounts to something of a racial double play, allowing Obama and Cosby to cater both to culturally conservative blacks and to whites who are convinced that black America is a bastion of decadence. (Curiously, Cosby is noncommittal verging on prickly when it comes to Obama. When Larry King asked him whether he supported Obama, he bristled: “Do you ask white people this question? … I want to know why this fellow especially is brought up in such a special way. How many Americans in the media really take him seriously, or do they look at him like some prize brown baby?” The exchange ended with Cosby professing admiration for Dennis Kucinich. Months later, he rebuffed my requests for his views on Obama’s candidacy.)

The shift in focus from white racism to black culture is not as new as some social commentators make it out to be. Standing in St. Paul Church on that July evening listening to Cosby, I remembered the last time The Street felt like this: in the summer of 1994, after Louis Farrakhan announced the Million Man March. Farrakhan barnstormed the country holding “men only” meetings (but much larger). I saw him in my native Baltimore, while home from Howard University on vacation. The march itself was cathartic. I walked with four or five other black men, and all along the way black women stood on porches or out on the street, shouting, clapping, cheering. For us, Farrakhan’s opinions on the Jews mostly seemed beside the point; what stuck was the chance to assert our humanity and our manhood by marching on the Mall, and not acting like we were all fresh out of San Quentin. We lived in the shadow of the ’80s crack era. So many of us had been jailed or were on our way. So many of us were fathers in biology only. We believed ourselves disgraced and clung to the march as a public statement: the time had come to grow up.

Black conservatives have been dipping into this well of lost black honor since the turn of the 20th century. On the one hand, vintage black nationalists have harked back to a golden age of black Africa, where mighty empires sprawled and everyone was a king. Meanwhile, populist black conservatives like Cosby point to pre-1968 black America as an era when blacks were united in the struggle: men were men, and a girl who got pregnant without getting married would find herself bundled off to Grandpa’s farm.

What both visions share is a sense that black culture in its present form is bastardized and pathological. What they also share is a foundation in myth. Black people are not the descendants of kings. We are—and I say this with big pride—the progeny of slaves. If there’s any majesty in our struggle, it lies not in fairy tales but in those humble origins and the great distance we’ve traveled since. Ditto for the dreams of a separate but noble past. Cosby’s, and much of black America’s, conservative analysis flattens history and smooths over the wrinkles that have characterized black America since its inception.

Indeed, a century ago, the black brain trust was pushing the same rhetoric that Cosby is pushing today. It was concerned that slavery had essentially destroyed the black family and was obsessed with seemingly the same issues—crime, wanton sexuality, and general moral turpitude—that Cosby claims are recent developments. “The early effort of middle-class blacks to respond to segregation was, aside from a political agenda, focused on a social-reform agenda,” says Khalil G. Muhammad, a professor of American history at Indiana University. “The National Association of Colored Women, Du Bois in The Philadelphia Negro, all shared a sense of anxiety that African Americans were not presenting their best selves to the world. There was the sense that they were committing crimes and needed to keep their sexuality in check.” Adds William Jelani Cobb, a professor of American history at Spelman College: “The same kind of people who were advocating for social reform were denigrating people because they didn’t play piano. They often saw themselves as reluctant caretakers of the less enlightened.”

In particular, Cosby’s argument—that much of what haunts young black men originates in post-segregation black culture—doesn’t square with history. As early as the 1930s, sociologists were concerned that black men were falling behind black women. In his classic study, The Negro Family in the United States, published in 1939, E. Franklin Frazier argued that urbanization was undermining the ability of men to provide for their families. In 1965—at the height of the civil-rights movement—Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s milestone report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” picked up the same theme.

At times, Cosby seems willfully blind to the parallels between his arguments and those made in the presumably glorious past. Consider his problems with rap. How could an avowed jazz fanatic be oblivious to the similar plaints once sparked by the music of his youth? “The tired longshoreman, the porter, the housemaid and the poor elevator boy in search of recreation, seeking in jazz the tonic for weary nerves and muscles,” wrote the lay historian J. A. Rogers, “are only too apt to find the bootlegger, the gambler and the demi-monde who have come there for victims and to escape the eyes of the police.”

Beyond the apocryphal notion that black culture was once a fount of virtue, there’s still the charge that culture is indeed the problem. But to reach that conclusion, you’d have to stand on some rickety legs. The hip-hop argument, again, is particularly creaky. Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard social scientist, has highlighted that an increase in hip-hop’s popularity during the early 1990s corresponded with a declining amount of time spent reading among black kids. But gangsta rap can be correlated with other phenomena, too—many of them positive. During the 1990s, as gangsta rap exploded, teen pregnancy and the murder rate among black men declined. Should we give the blue ribbon in citizenship to Dr. Dre?

“I don’t know how to measure culture. I don’t know how to test its effects, and I’m not sure anyone else does,” says the Georgetown economist Harry Holzer. “There’s a liberal story that limited opportunities, and barriers, lead to employment problems and criminal records, but then there’s another story that has to do with norms, behaviors, and oppositional culture. You can’t prove the latter statistically, but it still might be true.” Holzer thinks that both arguments contain truth and that one doesn’t preclude the other. Fair enough. Suffice it to say, though, that the evidence supporting structural inequality is compelling. In 2001, a researcher sent out black and white job applicants in Milwaukee, randomly assigning them a criminal record. The researcher concluded that a white man with a criminal record had about the same chance of getting a job as a black man without one. Three years later, researchers produced the same results in New York under more-rigorous conditions.

The accepted wisdom is that such studies are a comfort to black people, allowing them to wallow in their misery. In fact, the opposite is true—the liberal notion that blacks are still, after a century of struggle, victims of pervasive discrimination is the ultimate collective buzz-kill. It effectively means that African Americans must, on some level, accept that their children will be “less than” until some point in the future when white racism miraculously abates. That’s not the sort of future that any black person eagerly awaits, nor does it make for particularly motivating talking points.

Last summer, I watched Cosby give a moving commencement speech to a group of Connecticut inmates who’d just received their GEDs. Before the speech, at eight in the morning, Cosby quizzed correctional officials on the conditions and characteristics of their inmate population. I wished, then, that my 7-year-old son could have seen Cosby there, to take in the same basic message that I endeavor to serve him every day—that manhood means more than virility and strut, that it calls for discipline and dutiful stewardship. That the ultimate fate of black people lies in their own hands, not in the hands of their antagonists. That as an African American, he has a duty to his family, his community, and his ancestors.

If Cosby’s call-outs simply ended at that—a personal and communal creed—there’d be little to oppose. But Cosby often pits the rhetoric of personal responsibility against the legitimate claims of American citizens for their rights. He chides activists for pushing to reform the criminal-justice system, despite solid evidence that the criminal-justice system needs reform. His historical amnesia—his assertion that many of the problems that pervade black America are of a recent vintage—is simply wrong, as is his contention that today’s young African Americans are somehow weaker, that they’ve dropped the ball. And for all its positive energy, his language of uplift has its limitations. After the Million Man March, black men embraced a sense of hope and promise. We were supposed to return to our communities and families inspired by a new feeling of responsibility. Yet here we are again, almost 15 years later, with seemingly little tangible change. I’d take my son to see Bill Cosby, to hear his message, to revel in its promise and optimism. But afterward, he and I would have a very long talk.

On the day last summer when Cosby met me for lunch in the West Village, it was raining, as it had been all week, and New York was experiencing a record-cold August. Cosby had just come from Max Roach’s funeral and was dressed in a natty three-piece suit. Despite the weather, the occasion, and the oddly empty dining room, Cosby was energized. He had spent the previous day in Philadelphia, where he spoke to a group in a housing project, met with state health officials, and participated in a community march against crime. Grassroots black activists in his hometown were embracing his call. He planned, over the coming year, to continue his call-outs and release a hip-hop album. (He has also noted, however, that there won’t be any profanity on it.)

Cosby was feeling warm and nostalgic. He asked why I had not brought my son, and I instantly regretted dropping him off at my partner’s workplace for a couple of hours. He talked about breaking his shoulder playing school football, after his grandfather had tried to get him to quit. “Granddad Cosby got on the trolley and came over to the apartment,” he recalled. “I was so embarrassed. I was laid out on the sofa. He was talking to my parents, and I was waiting for the moment when he would say, ‘See, I told you, Junior.’ He came back and reached in his pocket and gave me a quarter. He said, ‘Go to the corner and get some ice cream. It has calcium in it.’”

Much pop psychology has been devoted to Cosby’s transformation into such a high-octane, high-profile activist. His nemesis Dyson says that Cosby, in his later years, is following in the dishonorable tradition of upper-class African Americans who denounce their less fortunate brethren. Others have suggested more-sinister motivations—that Cosby is covering for his own alleged transgressions. (In 2006, Cosby settled a civil lawsuit filed by a woman who claimed that he had sexually assaulted her; other women have come forward with similar allegations that have not gone to court.) But the depth of his commitment would seem to belie such suspicions, and in any case, they do not seem to have affected his hold on his audience: in the November Pew survey, 85 percent of all African American respondents considered him a “good influence” on the black community, above Obama (76 percent) and second only to Oprah Winfrey (87 percent).

Part of what drives Cosby’s activism, and reinforces his message, is the rage that lives in all African Americans, a collective feeling of disgrace that borders on self-hatred. As the comedian Chris Rock put it in one of his infamous routines, “Everything white people don’t like about black people, black people really don’t like about black people … It’s like a civil war going on with black people, and it’s two sides—there’s black people and there’s niggas, and niggas have got to go … Boy, I wish they’d let me join the Ku Klux Klan. Shit, I’d do a drive-by from here to Brooklyn.” (Rock stopped performing the routine when he noticed that his white fans were laughing a little too hard.) Liberalism, with its pat logic and focus on structural inequities, offers no balm for this sort of raw pain. Like the people he preaches to, Cosby has grown tired of hanging his head.

This disquiet spans generations, but it is most acute among those of the civil-rights era. “I don’t know a better term than angst,” says Johnnetta Cole. “I refuse to categorize every young African American with the same language, but there are some ‘young’uns’—and some of us who are not ‘young’uns’—who must turn around and look at where we are, because where we’re headed isn’t pretty.” Like many of the stars of the civil-rights movement, Cole has gifts that go beyond social activism. She rose out of the segregated South and went to college at age 15, eventually earning a bachelor’s from Oberlin and a doctorate in anthropology from Northwestern. That same sort of dynamism exists today among many younger blacks, but what troubles the older generation is that their energy seems directed at other pursuits besides social uplift.

Cosby is fond of saying that sacrifices of the ’60s weren’t made so that rappers and young people could repeatedly use the word nigger. But that’s exactly why they were made. After all, chief among all individual rights awarded Americans is the right to be mediocre, crass, and juvenile—in other words, the right to be human. But Cosby is aiming for something superhuman—twice as good, as the elders used to say—and his homily to a hazy black past seems like an effort to redeem something more than the present.

When people hear Bill Cosby’s message, many assume that he is the product of the sort of family he’s promoting—two caring parents, a stable home life, a working father. In fact, like many of the men he admonishes, Cosby was born into a troubled home. He was raised by his mother because his father, who joined the Navy, abandoned the family when Cosby was a child. Speaking to me of his youth, Cosby said, “People told me I was bright, but nobody stayed on me. My mother was too busy trying to feed and clothe us.” He was smart enough to be admitted to Central High School, a magnet school in Philadelphia, but transferred and then dropped out in 10th grade and followed his father into the service.

But the twists and turns of that reality seem secondary to the tidier, more appealing world that Cosby is trying to create. Toward the end of our lunch, in a long, rambling monologue, Cosby told me, “If you looked at me and said, ‘Why is he doing this? Why right now?,’ you could probably say, ‘He’s having a resurgence of his childhood.’ What do I need if I am a child today? I need people to guide me. I need the possibility of change. I need people to stop saying I can’t pull myself up by my own bootstraps. They say that’s a myth. But these other people have their mythical stories—why can’t we have our own?”

Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, published this month.