Wednesday, February 13, 2008


On August 20, 1972, something happened in Los Angeles that remains unmatched in American history. More than 112,000 people – almost all African-Americans – gathered in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for a seven-hour concert hosted by Stax Records. The Memphis-based label took its entire roster of artists at the time for the event, which was designed to a peaceful, astounding, and vivid celebration of self-expression and empowerment for the Watts community. It was also a for the benefit of the Watts Summer Festival, established some years earlier to raise money for community improvement projects in the wake of the 1965 Watts rebellion, during which much of the Los Angeles community was destroyed. At the time, it was the second largest gathering of African-Americans in history, second only to Dr. Martin Luther King’s march on Washington in 1963. The name of the concert was Wattstax, and for many it became known as the “Black Woodstock.”

Among the artists on hand were the Staple Singers, the Bar-Kays, Albert King, Rufus and Carla Thomas, The Rance Allen Group, The Soul Children, The Dramatics, The Emotions, Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton, Luther Ingram, Kim Weston, Isaac Hayes, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and others. Admission to the festival was just $1.00, assuring that anyone who wanted to attend could be there. Proceeds benefited the many community programs supported by the Watts Summer Festival, Martin Luther King Hospital, the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, and the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. The artists performed free of charge and Schlitz beer sponsored the event to offset some of the production costs. Stax Records paid all other incurred costs.

Now, Rhodes College is bringing the memory of Wattstax to life with a special exhibit on loan from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, “WATTSTAX: I Am Somebody,” which features more than 50 large-format color and black-and-white photos of the concert, the crowd, and the making of the documentary that was released the following year, Wattstax: The Living Word. Free and open to the public, the exhibit will be on display in the Paul Barret, Jr. Library February 2 – 28, 2008 in Barrett 051. Times are: Thursdays, 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.; and Sundays 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.

The exhibit – which returned to Memphis in January from a four-month showing at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, where it received rave reviews and was extended because of its popularity – was first shown at the Stax Museum in fall 2004 to coincide with the release of a newly restored Wattstax: The Living Word on home DVD from Warner Home Video.

At a February 5th opening reception at Rhodes, former Stax Records owner and Wattstax creator Al Bell gave the following speech:

February 5, 2008
“Believing and Achieving the American Dream”
Presented by Al Bell

To: Dr. Anita Davis, Dr. William E. Troutt, Dr. Russell Wigginton, Dr. Luther Ivory, Faculty members, Students, Business and community leaders, those of my business colleagues and business associates present here this evening, my family members that are present and my friends.

Please let me humbly say “Thank You” to Dr. Anita Davis for inviting me here today to speak to and fellowship with the Rhodes family. I am both humbled and honored.

I am so appreciative and thank Dr. Davis for choosing to display The WATTSTAX photographic exhibit during Rhodes College’s Black History Month Celebration. The Exhibit highlights some of the most poignant moments captured during the filming of the cultural-music film classic.

The photos reveal the enthusiasm of the participating audience; the seriousness of the event; the emotion of the performing Stax artists and lastly -- and perhaps most importantly -- the mood of a colorful collection of oppressed people peaceably expressing their determination to keep hope alive.

In my judgment, the fact that Rhodes College is choosing to highlight the WATTSTAX exhibit during it’s Black History Month Celebration serves to add additional value, credibility, legitimacy and contemporary importance to what WATTSTAX represents currently as a cultural and social "work of art" that was created 30+ years ago. Thank You!

I also want to wish Rhodes College a Happy Anniversary on your 160th year of giving service to humanity since 1848. Happy Anniversary!!!

As I began preparing for our discussion today here at Rhodes College, my mind went back to 1968 and why and how WATTSTAX came into being. What we were trying to offer that audience in that stadium overflowing with men…women… and children in Los Angeles was HOPE in the American Dream….helping them to believe that whatever they dreamed of achieving would and could be fulfilled!

What is the American Dream?

In the United States’ Declaration of Independence, our founding fathers: "…held certain truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." Might this sentiment be considered the foundation of the American Dream?

Some say, that the American Dream has become the pursuit of material prosperity - that people work more hours to get bigger cars, fancier homes, the fruits of prosperity for their families - but have less time to enjoy their prosperity. Others say that the American Dream is beyond the grasp of the working poor who must work two jobs to insure their family’s survival. Yet others look toward a new American Dream with less focus on financial gain and more emphasis on living a simple, fulfilling life.

Thomas Wolfe said, "…to every man, regardless of his birth, his shining, golden opportunity (the American Dream is) ….the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him." Is this your American Dream?

The term,The American Dream, was first used in James Truslow Adams’ book “The Epic of America”, he writes: "The American Dream is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." (p.214-215)

Dreams of hope, equality, prosperity, recognition, and acceptance have long been the dreams of our forefathers….

In 1848, what is now named Rhodes College was founded by men and grown by men of “good will” born out of the John Calvin and Martin Luther ideals. Rhodes’ founding fathers and builders believed in something they could not see with their eyes.

Rhodes founders believed in the “fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.” Rhodes founding fathers basic ideals are that all persons are the children of one God, that all persons are related to each other, and that the best way to worship God is to be of service to people.

Born before this 1848 period Scott Joplin an African American Composer and Pianist created and became the father of Ragtime Music. He sought both legitimacy and recognition for ragtime as an art form but Joplin was doubly cursed by his dream. As a black, he lived at a time when the legal system not only left so many people of color without civil liberty, but also denigrated every aspect of our culture.
In 1938 Irving Berlin wrote the words and music to a song that says:

"While the storm clouds gather far across the sea, Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free, Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.” God Bless America, Land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her Thru the night with a light from above. From the mountains, to the prairies, To the oceans, white with foam God bless America, My home sweet home.

Those words of Irving Berlin have become the mantra for many Americans. It speaks of each of us striving in our individual ways to live in a land of peace and equality.

Twenty years before WATTSTAX, Jackie Robinson had broken the Major League Baseball color barrier (1948) when he became the first black baseball player in the U.S. major leagues during the 20th century. As an infielder and outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League he hit a league-leading .342, drove in 124 runs, and was voted the Most Valuable Player in the National League.
In 1948 President Harry S. Truman confounded all predictions that “he could not do it” and won re-election as President of the United States of America. In 1948 he used executive orders to begin desegregation of the U.S. armed forces.
In 1948 Mahatma Gahndi made his transformation from this three dimenesional world.

Mahatma Gahndi was a major political and spiritual leader of India and the Indian independence movement. He was the pioneer of a simple, but profound philosophy that is largely concerned with truth and 'resistance to evil through active, non-violent resistance'—which led India to independence and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. It was Mahatma Gahndi’s philosophy and spiritual beliefs that had the greatest influence on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..

In 1948 I was alive. In my life and times I lived facing the painful and almost unbearable sting of segration, Jim Crow, racism and all other forms of social injustice while seeking equal rights and to be liberated.

In 1948 Big Band and Jazz Music grew popular in America and began to influence music generally.

Twenty years later after we had marched and fought for equal rights, In 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the “Drum Major” for freedom, justice, equality and peace, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was assassinated.

In 1968 President Lyndon Baines Johnson who was vice President under President John Fitzgerald Kennedy became President after President Kennedy was assassinated. President Johnson pushed through congress the civil rights legislation that President Kennedy wanted to pass, as a result of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Equal Rights Movement. President Johnson refused to run for re-election and it created unbelievable disruption in the Democrat party. I remember him saying “This old country boy is going home.”

Robert Kennedy who was the Attorney General under his brother President John Fitzgerald Kennedy decided to run for President so that he could fulfill his brothers’ dream. In 1968 he was assassinated in Los Angeles, CA.

In 1968 the “spirit” that gave rise to the creation of WATTSTAX, the attitude of Respect Yourself and I Am Somebody “was being born.”

“Believing and Fulfilling the American Dream!”

Over 30 years ago “in pursuit of the American Dream”, two men who worked with me at STAX, Larry Shaw and Forrest Hamilton, and I had the vision of taking the roster of STAX’S African American recording artist to Los Angeles, CA, - put on a concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum, - record it, - film it, - produce a documentary film titled WATTSTAX: The Living Word, - and contribute a substantial portion of the net

proceeds to an annual Los Angeles, CA African American cultural event - the Watts Summer Festival, and to varied other African American social, humanitarian and Civil Rights organizations.

We dared, or had the audacity to do this for numerous reasons. I choose, on this occasion, to highlight only ‘one reason’ because from a social, cultural and historical point of view, in my judgment, it is the most significant and the most important reason.

We believed that WATTSTAX would demonstrate the positive attributes of black pride and the unique substance found in the lives, living and lifestyle of the African American working class and middle class (this “socioeconomic group”) while revealing some insight into their internal thoughts during a time when we were still struggling to be recognized, respected, accepted as human beings and to be granted “equal rights” as enjoyed by every other ethnic group, that was a part of the larger segment of American society.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took the position that his passive resistance “equal rights” movement would provide the forum for the rest of the world to realize firstly, that we even existed in America as a people and secondly, that the reaction to his passive resistance “equal rights” movement, by the larger segment of society, as shown via television, would allow for the rest of the world to see how America was treating us, as a people.

The documentary WATTSTAX allows for you to see and hear through words and music, how some African Americans in this “socioeconomic group” were dealing with and still reacting to that mistreatment just 4 years after Dr. King’s death.

We believed that WATTSTAX would provide somewhat of a “mirror” for us to see ourselves, and an opportunity for other Americans to peer through a small “window of our existence” and gain a better insight into the kind of caring, and sensitive, family oriented people that we really are!!!

There were 112,000 people at the WATTSTAX Concert in the Los Angeles Coliseum on a very, very, hot day and night. They were there for over 10 hours. They came from every segment of our African American society - from Ozzie Davis and Ruby Dee, the Soul Train folks and entire families to the “Bloods” and the “Crips” (so called gangs). There was not one single disturbance. No policemen were there. We had our own security, headed and managed by Melvin Van Peebles and no one had a gun. There was not one single disturbance. It was a day of Celebration. The WATTSTAX concert was an African American family affair. WATTSTAX was a Celebration!!!

This was a time when African Americans dreamed of, and desired, to merely be granted, “equal rights” thereby becoming “equal partners and equal participants” in the American Dream.

A time when we, although being disrespected and mistreated by many, possessed deep down within us a burning desire to be treated equally so that we could proudly stand among the masses with “hands up” rather than being continually suppressed, oppressed, reduced to sub-human standards and forced into the disrespectful position of “hands out.”

WATTSTAX graphically demonstrates how a people, living in the land of plenty, possessing so little, found refuge in the “spirit of celebration.”

WATTSTAX: The Living Word -------- “A CELEBRATION!!!”

When you get an opportunity to view the film we ask you to color in your mind every participant as being white, or European American, give the guitars a smooth steel sound, give the speech a twangy sound and the vocals a slight yodel sound and then perhaps, paradoxically, you will recognize that WATTSTAX is really a reflection of what was going on in the lives, living and lifestyles of the largest “socioeconomic group” of people in America, - white and black.

It is very important to realize and note that two white people, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, founded STAX. They did not emphasize a difference in the races, thus STAX was an integrated environment, at a time when segregation permeated American society.

It is very important to realize and note that WATTSTAX: The Living Word was financed by white and black money (and not by Hollywood) for at that time STAX Records and STAX Films were owned fifty percent by Jim Stewart (a white man) and fifty percent by Al Bell (a black man).

It is very important to realize and note that WATTSTAX: The Living Word’s Executive Producers were Al Bell (black) and David Wolper (white) of Wolper Film Productons. The number one documentary film production company in Hollywood.

It is very important to realize and note that WATTSTAX: The Living Word’s Producers were Larry Shaw (black) with STAX and Mel Stuart (white) with Wolper Film Productions..

It is very important to realize and note that WATTSTAX: The Living Word’s Director was Mel Stuart a white man whose directing, editing and finished product was guided and co-directed by a black man Larry Shaw.

As a result, the perspective of this movie was one of “truth!” Bold – sincere – undiluted!!! A unique voice captured also by black film crews, many of them shooting their first time in a big budget film. The result of this “truth” - WATTSTAX: The Living Word is a Cannes celebrated, Golden Globe nominated, and thirty years later a Sundance awarded movie.

The insight gleaned from WATTSTAX: The Living Word inspired David Wolper to later film and produce Alex Haley’s Roots.

The inspiration continued, as recent reports revealed that the noted comedian David Chappelle looked to WATTSTAX: The Living Word as a “blue print” for his contemporary hip hop WATTSTAX “event and experience” in New York City.

STAX Records and WATTSTAX personified how white and black people working side by side could make music for black people, and a documentary about how the music reflected what was going on in black lives, living and life styles, without compromising in any manner the authenticity of the presentation.

Was this a miracle, or is this merely an example of what we whites and blacks can achieve in America by working together, respecting each other, and accepting each other as we really are???

It is my prayer that WATTSTAX: The Living Word will trigger thought processes that in some small way will aid us collectively in understanding how to eliminate any gulfs or perceived dichotomy that exist between us as human beings.

It is my prayer that we, people, can collectively site that part of the Declaration of Independence that states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is my prayer that we, people, can stand together, embrace our collective freedom and speak together in unison the “Pledge of Allegiance” with passionate emphasis on “one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and Justice for all.”

“Believing and Fulfilling the American Dream!”

God Bless Americans!!!

We have come a mighty long way in America – but we still have a little further to go!!! Change!!!

Believing and Fulfilling the American Dream!

So here we are TODAY 2008 in “A Brand New World!!!”

I come to you today as an American Citizen of African Ancestry.

From 1680 to June of 2007 (400 years after America’s beginning) historical records clearly reflect – the many incidents, laws, and changing of laws, including an amendment to the Constitution – that people of African Ancestry have earned the right to be an American Citizen. I am proud to be an American citizen.

So here we are TODAY 2008 in “A Brand New World!!!”

Today, we have a woman of European Ancestry Hillary Clinton and a man of African ancestry Barack Obama, leading the Democratic race for the next President of the United States of America.

Today, we see basketball and football team uniforms and not the players color.

Today, men and a woman of African ancestry head over 56 countries in the world.

Today, the largest democracy in the world is India and it is headed by a woman. The current President of India is Pratibha Patil, the first woman to serve in the office. She was sworn in on July 25, 2007.

The world is moving on this “gender issue” and we had better start changing.

Today, women now head up governments in South America, Africa, Asia and Europe.

Today, the world’s largest and tallest building is in Dubai. It is no longer the Sears’ Tower in Chicago.

Today, we (America) are no longer the “Financial Sun” in the Universe. We are just a planet.

Today the largest private airplane is not flown by the President of the United States it is owned and flown by His Royal Highness Prince Al Waleed. Prince Al Waleed is CEO of Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding Company in Dubai.

We have come a mighty long way in America – but we still have a little further to go!!!

Let not your hearts be troubled though CHANGE is in the air and the winds of change are blowing!!!

We have come a mighty long way in America – but we still have a little further to go!!! Change!!!

Believing and Achieving the American Dream.

In closing, I wish to share with you one of my favorite poems written by Edgar A. Guest and titled “It Couldn’t Be Done”. Hopefully, as it has always done for me, it will serve to inspire and motivate you to say “Yes We Can.” Then we must start working together to bring about a CHANGE!

Somebody said it couldn’t be done,
but he with a chuckle replied
that “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
on his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
that couldn’t be done, and he did it.

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
at least no one ever has done it”;
but he took off his coat and he took off his hat,
and the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With the lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
without any doubting or quiddit,
he started to sing as he tackled the thing
that couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
there are thousands to prophesy failure;
there are thousands to point out to you, one by one,
the dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
just take off your coat and go to it;
just start to sing as you tackle the thing
that “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

On this day I thank God for continuing to bless America!


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