Pawn in their Game

Last week I began watching Martin Scorcese’s biopic of Bob Dylan, “No Direction Home,” which I’m loving.

Halfway through Part I, a 22-year-old Dylan, hair closely cropped, blinking fast, emerges in front of a podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was August 28, 1963 – the March on Washington.

Over 250,000 people gathered to demand equal rights, equal opportunities, and equal justice – the largest march of the civil rights movement. Dylan begins:

A bullet from the back of a bush
Took Medgar Evers’ blood …
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game

Medgar Evers was a civil rights activist murdered in Mississippi on June 12, 1963. The murder is bigger than the murderer, Dylan says. It’s the system that needs to change.

One year later, Lyndon Johnson signed the greatest piece of civil rights legislation in the nation’s history.

History may not repeat but let’s hope it does more than rhyme.

Here’s how the song ends:

When the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain
Only a pawn in their game

* * *

That same month, the singer Nina Simone heard about Evers’ murder and in one hour wrote Mississippi Goddam. One year later she played it at Carnegie Hall.

If you are a Nina Simone fan – and I am – for that story and much more, check out What Ever Happened to Nina Simone?

James Baldwin + Bob Dylan, 1963 Nina Simone


Short story:

When Ella Fitzgerald couldn’t get booked by clubs and TV because she was black, Marilyn Monroe offered to come to a nightclub every night and sit in the front row if they let Ella sing.

For that story and more, in children’s book form, get Ella, Queen of Jazz by Helen Hancocks.

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