African American Musicians Traveling through the South during the Civil Rights Movement

Original Airdates: February 1, 2, 4 (2011)

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.

For African American musicians, traveling in the South was a
challenge long before the Civil Rights Movement, with hotels, restaurants, and other businesses often denying them service. But as the movement heightened racial tensions in the South, black musicians had to be especially on guard.

Vocalist Madeline Thompson, who traveled during the sixties with the gospel groups of Clara Ward, recalls in a telephone interview what could happen on the road:

"We had the skinheads that would try to run us off the road; drivers that, you know, if you needed light or too much light or whatever. So it was very scary. And sometimes Mrs. Ward would say to us—Clara's mother—‘You guys just pray because nobody out here to help us but us and Jesus.'"

Reuben Burton describes an incident in the sixties involving the Rev. Eddie Franklin, a fellow member of the Victory Travelers quartet:

"We was in Kentucky. You know, that's the heart of the Klansmen."

Interviewer: "Oh, yeah."

"And he went to buy some baloney. He got a nickel worth of baloney (laughs) and gave the man a twenty-dollar bill, and he said, ‘Cut it thick as possible.' So the man got angry. So he cut the baloney, and he went, got change and put it in some water. Franklin looked at him; he said, ‘That ain't my money. That's not my money.' So everybody, Whoa, what? What? He said no. Said, 'Ain't my money.' He said, ‘Go get my money.' So we all—you know, we all came back. We had to stand up. You know, what are we, to die for whatever? Then the guy got scared after he saw we wasn't running from him. He gave him the money. Then he came to us and told us who he was. He was one of the—was a part of the Klan, one of the leader. And he call you ‘boy.' He said, ‘You boys have changed—made me look at you boys different. I was supposed to shot y'all, but I didn't.' Bad part about it, Franklin had a gun on him, we didn't know it. (laughter)"

These touring musicians often found refuge in the homes of local blacks. Gospel singer Rev. Dr. Issac Whittmon fondly describes the time his ensemble stayed in a woman's home while performing in Marshall, Texas:

"There was a snowstorm, but it wasn't in that city. But it was coming that way. And so we were trying to get through with the last program that night and get on out and beat the snowstorm. And so she told us, she says, ‘Well, I hope y'all beat the snowstorm.' She said, ‘But if you don't, you can come on back to the house. But you're going to have to sing for your breakfast.' And so, you know, we laughed because we just knew we was going to beat the snowstorm. Well, here we come dragging back luggage and all, car full of snow. And so she opened the door. She was so happy that we came back. And the next morning, she fixed us this good breakfast and all like that. We come out, and we sit down at the table. And she says, ‘Unh-uh. No, you—no, no. No, you can't eat.' And we said, Why? You know, we laughed because we had been at her house for a week. We laughed, you know. And so we started back, get ready to say our blessing. She said, ‘Unh-uh!' She says, ‘You got to sing.' We had to sing three songs before she would let us eat breakfast. That was the most funniest thing! She had an upright old piano in there. But, you know, I think about her often, for somebody to love what you do that much, you know."

Racism was certainly not confined to the South. But black musicians traveling these states during the Civil Rights Movement had to face the suspicions and hatred thrown their way by those who sensed and feared the coming changes.

Living Stories is heard every Tuesday on 103 point 3 FM, Waco's NPR. For more information about this program or the Institute for Oral History, visit us at

Search our collection of full transcripts available online.