#747: 1963, Bob Dylan, Only a Pawn in the Game

by Jackie_South on August 28, 2013

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. Bob Dylan played this as part of his set before the speeches started at the Lincoln Memorial in one of its first broadcast airings, although he had performed it live earlier that summer to audiences in the Deep South as part of the civil rights campaign. The song didn’t make it on to vinyl until the following year, on The Times They Are a-Changin’, but the world heard it first on that Wednesday afternoon fifty years ago.

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood

Medgar Evers was the leading civil rights organiser in Mississippi, murdered by a member of the local White Citizens’ Council, Byron de la Beckwith (yes, that same White Citizens’ Council praised by the state’s governor Haley Barbour two years ago) only ten weeks before the March on Washington took place.

The song points out that the violence dealt to black activists was not just the fault of the white men that carried out the act, but also the politicians who used race to put poor whites and poor blacks at loggerheads to both advance their own careers and prevent them making common cause in the poorest parts of the US.

But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in

It is of course a story that, despite all the advances in civil rights made in the intervening fifty years, is still as true in the Deep South today: you only need to reflect on the killing of Trayvon Martin.

And of course, you don’t need to look as far a field as the US South to find politicians who try to push people’s emotional buttons to distract the voters from asking too many questions about the conditions they face and to drive wedges.

Dylan’s choice of song had been popular in the cotton fields of the South, but was more controversial at the March – some saw it as letting de la Beckwith off the hook for the murder. I think it was making precisely the right point: it is the system and those in charge of it that does most damage, and that is as true today as it was on that balmy day fifty summers ago.

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George_East August 28, 2013 at 10:58 pm

The saddest thing is that the 50th anniversary of the MLK speech has coincided with an ultra-conservative Supreme Court striking down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Southern states are now actively pursuing the introduction of discriminatory voting laws designed to suppress minority voting. Deeply depressing.

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