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Blackbird, Fly: When The Beatles Outfaced Racial Segregation

A few weeks ago, Paul McCartney voiced his support for George Floyd protests and expressed his dismay through a Facebook post saying, “I feel sick and angry that here we are, almost 60 years later, and the world is in shock at the horrific scenes of the senseless murder of George Floyd at the hands of police racism, along with the countless others that came before. I want justice for George Floyd’s family, I want justice for all those who have died and suffered. Saying nothing is not an option.”

This isn’t the first time Paul or The Beatles have spoken in defense of Civil Rights. In his interview to GQ, Paul speaking about the stimulus powering their iconic song, ‘Blackbird’ said, “I was sitting with my acoustic guitar, and I’d heard about the civil rights troubles in Alabama [where Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in 1955], Mississippi [where three civil rights activists were executed in 1964], Little Rock in particular. So that was in my mind, and I just thought, It would be really good if I could write something that, if it ever reached any of the people going through those problems, it might kinda give them a little bit of hope. So I wrote ‘Blackbird.’”

Paul McCartney Breaks Down His Most Iconic Songs | GQ


While other inspirations have been mentioned over the years — the experience of hearing a blackbird sing while he was in India, a personal message to an aunt — the writer was clear about where the idea came from. “In England, a ‘bird’ is a girl, so I was thinking of a black girl going through this,” he said, explaining that the message was “Now’s your time to arise, you know, set yourself free.”


“One of the nice things about music is that you know a lot of the people listening to you are going to take seriously what you’re saying in the song,” McCartney added. “I’m very proud of the fact that the Beatles’ output is always really pretty positive … it’s always ‘Let It Be,’ ‘Hey Jude,’ ‘Blackbird.’ It’s hopefully a good message. Hopefully, people out there will listen to it and think, ‘It’s not just me alone going through this … it’s also something I can fix.”

The “Blackbird” story came full circle when he posed for a photograph with Elizabeth and Thelma: “Incredible to meet two of the Little Rock Nine — pioneers of the civil rights movement and inspiration for ‘Blackbird.’”

The iconic Liverpool band has raised their voice against racial segregation on other occasions as well. Showing their support for the US civil rights movement, The Beatles had refused to perform to a ‘segregated audience’ concert at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, back in 1964. As the pressure of the band’s act of resistance threatened to boil over, officials at the concert eventually allowed the segregated audience to merge together. For the uninitiated, segregating the audience implied that people of colour could only get to take seating that was far back from the stage, and separate from privileged white people. Black patrons would be forcibly segregated from whites, assigned the worse seats farthest away from the stage, and maybe subjected to a differentiating atmosphere if they showed up. Such segregated shows divided their audience without consent.

In his book Tomorrow-land, Joseph Tirella writes, the Beatles were world-famous, outsider stars who had arrived on the American shores preaching the gospel of rock ‘n’ roll; and unlike the racially segregated Americans, the Beatles didn’t see or hear the difference between Elvis and Chuck Berry or between the Everly Brothers or The Marvelettes.

 That month in Jacksonville, Florida’s history was historic for more reasons than one. Florida had been ravaged by Hurricane Dora, and Ringo Starr’s drums had to be tied to the stage to prevent them from toppling over in the high winds. Because of storm damage in Jacksonville, almost 30 percent of ticket holders were unable to reach the stadium. The 37-minute show almost didn’t happen. But the lasting news story that month involved the Beatles’ steadfast dismissal of the practices of systemic segregation that typified that era, particularly in the American South. Upon entering the stage with thousands of people waiting with bated breath, John Lennon said, “We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now. I’d sooner lose our appearance money.” They even had in their contract they would not play to segregated audiences. It was a ludicrous idea to them. The concert organizers were forced to de-segregated that concert.

Longtime radio and TV reporter Larry Kane traveled with the band to every stop on that tour, and interviewed Paul McCartney about the controversy.

On one hand, the world was influencing what the Beatles were going through, and what music they were creating, what songs they were writing, and on the other, the fabulous four were influencing the way the world looked at things. They left behind a legacy that night, by standing up against institutional racism. Major political changes were occurring in the country which would have happened with or without The Beatles taking a stand for unification. But they took a stand nonetheless. Like Paul McCartney said in his post, “saying nothing is not an option.”

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