Soul Music and the Civil Rights Era: Respecting Self and the Other

Posted by Andrew Reese on April 5, 2015

Welcome to the third installment of our four-part blog series exploring the connections between music, history, and social change. In this third lesson, students will learn about two Stax Records recordings that both address respect: Otis Redding's "Respect" and the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself." One song focuses on the human need to be respected by others, while the other emphasizes respect for oneself.

On its surface, Otis Redding's 1965 hit "Respect" tells the story of a man who feels he deserves the respect of "his woman."

He works hard all day to provide for her, and he believes she owes him respect.

Redding drew on his own experiences when he wrote the song, as he was no stranger to hard work. Prior to becoming the "King of Soul" and an international star, Redding worked a variety of jobs to help support his family. In fact, he was working as the driver for musician and showman Johnny Jenkins when he first arrived at Stax. Once in the door, Redding pestered Booker T and the MGs drummer, Al Jackson, Jr., to give him a chance to perform. Jackson caved in: "The big tall guy that was driving Johnny, he's been bugging me to death, wanting me to hear him sing...Would you take some time and get this guy off my back and listen to him?"

Redding's persistence earned him the opportunity to sing for an audience; he blew them away with his soulful singing and earned the respect he knew he deserved. The song "Respect" may feel intimate, but some see a broader message. Stax recording artist William Bell explained, "These were, like, during the '60s—all of the black power movements, marches, and all of these things were coming along. Otis wrote 'Respect' for that...and he put it in the sense of a love relationship, but it was about life really."

In Respect Yourself, author Robert Gordon, who also directed the eponymous documentary, adds,

"It was that 'tear' in Otis's voice, the crying and the ache that it evoked, that made him a transcendent vocalist. His songs were about love, but the sense of longing he conveyed was deeper than the love between a man and woman; Otis touched the heart of desire. He sang about love but summoned the poignancy of his times, of people used and being used and wanting an embrace instead of a fist. Black, white—no matter the listener's race, only the listener's empathy. Those seeking comfort found it in Otis Redding's songs."

Indeed, those who preached nonviolent paths to racial equality spoke often of the importance of touching people's hearts. They won the sympathy of their fellow Americans by preserving their dignity in the face of ugly and dehumanizing intimidation. Just think of those civil rights activists, white and black, who quietly sat down at white-only lunch counters, marched with brave determination, and prayed while mobs of citizens and public officials attacked them with fists and batons, or of Rosa Parks respectfully refusing to move from her place on that bus.

The respect they sought ranged from social customs to voting rights.

In fact, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed nine days before "Respect" was released as a single. Called by some scholars "the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress," it sought to end voter disenfranchisement, particularly of black citizens, and forbade the various measures, such as literacy tests and redistricting, designed to bar men and women from the polls. The law, as noted at the website of the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice, "contained special enforcement provisions targeted at those areas of the country where Congress believed the potential for discrimination to be the greatest."

Memphis was one of "those areas of the country." Music scholar Dr. Portia Maultsby explores the connection between civil rights and the more personal narrative in the song "Respect":

"The themes of unity and respect advocated by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements also applied to personal relationships. Many soul singers, for example, offered advice for establishing rewarding relationships. Otis Redding suggested 'Try a Little Tenderness' (1966) and, along with Aretha Franklin, demanded 'Respect' (1965 and 1967, respectively). Al Green, in 'Let's Stay Together' (1971), and Aretha Franklin, in 'I Can't See Myself Leaving You' (1969), encouraged committed relationships. In Michael Haralambos's view, soul 'expresses faith in love, hope for love, and the joy and happiness in love,' rather than failed relationships, a theme frequently found in the blues."

While Otis Redding's "Respect" referred to respect between individuals and groups, the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself" focused on respect within an individual. Written in 1971, the ideas in "Respect Yourself" echoed ideas expressed by activists calling for self-respect, self-reliance, and black pride as a way to counter the belief that the pace of social change and the drive for equal opportunities were moving too slow. Indeed, scholar Rob Bowman explains the inspiration for the song:

"'Respect Yourself' resulted from a discussion [between songwriters Mack Rice and Luther Ingram]. At one point Ingram stated emphatically something along the lines of 'black folk need to learn to respect themselves.' Rice took the idea, and quickly cut a demo of the song with the help of Tommy Tate in Studio C. Bettye Crutcher heard the demo and suggested the song would be perfect for the Staple Singers."

In next week's installment, we will focus on the role of the Staple Singers, both at Stax and in the civil rights movement.

Invite students to watch two videos.

The first is of Stax Music Academy students performing Otis Redding’s “Respect”:

 

And in the second they perform the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself":

 

Then have students answer the following questions independently, in groups, or as a class:

  • What is respect?
  • If you feel respected (or disrespected), how does that impact the way you see yourself and others?
  • How does feeling respected or disrespected influence the choices you make?
  • How do Otis Redding's "Respect" (1965) and the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself" (1971) represent changing attitudes and ideas in the civil rights movement?

Go Deeper:

The lesson plans and videos are part of Facing History and Ourselves' latest teaching resource, Sounds of Change, published in partnership with the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, Tennessee. The resource's text-dependent questions that accompany both the lyrics and the historical documents are based on the Common Core Anchor Standards for Reading and Literacy in Social Studies. In addition to measuring student understanding of the material covered, the questions will prepare students for the types of questions they will encounter on Common Core State Standards–aligned assessments. Stay tuned next week for our fourth and final installment: Music and Social Change.

How do you teach about respect in the classroom? Tell us about it—comment below!

Topics: Art, Teaching Resources, Video, Civil Rights, Sounds of Change, Common Core State Standards, Flipped Classroom, Facing Technology

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