Singer-songwriter Curtis Mayfield’s “Hard Times” is a raw articulation of what it was like to witness the dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement turn into a nightmare.
From Mayfield’s 1975 album, “There Is No Place Like America Today,” the funk and soul musician sings, “Cold, cold eyes on me they stare. People all around me, and they’re all in fear.”
There were many reasons to be despondent. Todd Mayfield, his son, wrote in “Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield,” “Not only had the movement ended, it seemed the country was heading straight back into the nightmare that caused it to start.”
…National unemployment rates for black people remained nearly double that of whites, racial violence broke out in Boston and Pensacola, Florida, and the New York Times reported that conditions in the Watts ghetto in Los Angeles were worse than before the 1965 riot. School busing remained a dangerous endeavor, with children often put in the middle of terrible violence as protesters hurled rocks or worse at the buses, and it would take another year for the Supreme Court to rule that private schools couldn’t discriminate based on race, which meant that white schools still refused to follow a twenty-three year-old law.
Curtis Mayfield, according to his son, didn’t only witness this reality on the news but lived it too. Police would sometimes stop him in Atlanta for “the infamous crime of driving while black.”
A section on Mayfield’s memorial website, which pays tribute to the soundtrack he provided for the civil rights movement, notes, “Dr. King often used Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready,’ with its all-inclusive lyrics, as the music to move his marchers and named it the movement’s unofficial anthem, precisely because of its motivational and inspirational effect.”
Songs like “Hard Times” gave voice to the dejected black population, which suffered so greatly and continues to suffer because the economic justice planks of King’s Dream—including the “Poor People’s Campaign”—fell by the wayside.
It is fifty years since King was assassinated in Memphis and effectively martyred, and yet, since he traveled their to assist the sanitation workers in their struggle for workers’ rights, life for black people remains steeped in poverty and segregation.
Memphis is one of the poorest metropolitan areas in America, according to the New York Times. “Manufacturing jobs have faded away, and in 2016, the city’s poverty rate was nearly 27 percent, with close to half of Memphis’s children living in poverty. The median household income was nearly $19,000 lower than the nation’s.”
The “hard times” and “no love to be found,” which Mayfield sang of in 1975, still persists throughout the United States.
Listen to “Hard Times”:
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