Throwback Thursday: Bob Dylan Sang for Civil Rights in 1963
This story first appeared in the Sep. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Along with the genius and blessings of celebrity comes the obligation to spread the good news," says Jesse Jackson from Ferguson, Mo., where on Aug. 9 an 18-year-old unarmed black man was killed by a policeman, sparking riots. In July 1963, two weeks after a Klansman assassinated Medgar Evers, the NAACP's field secretary for Mississippi, a 22-year-old Bob Dylan fulfilled his obligation, going to Greenwood, Miss., with singer-activist Pete Seeger to support the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's voter-registration drive.
"Black folks in Mississippi didn't know who they were. Black folks were singing church songs, not folk songs," says comedian Dick Gregory, now 81, who also was organizing in the South. "The press went crazy over the caliber of the white folk who came. And these were people who didn't have to come; they could have just sent money." A month later, Dylan performed for a 250,000-strong crowd at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Two planeloads of Hollywood stars, including Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, arrived to hear him sing "When the Ship Comes In" and Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech.
"Artists and actresses have been fools and clowns," said Judy Garland at an L.A. organizing meeting held two weeks before the march. "We've been used by many causes we couldn't be true to. But this problem of the Negro should never have been a problem. Now that it is, we'll bloody well have to stand up and be counted." Says DreamWorks marketing executive Marvin Levy, who flew in with a group from New York: "The way it was organized, you were guided toward a section, but it wasn't like there were reserved seats. Everybody was equal. How many times do you see that many A-listers carrying their own bags?"