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Shelley Stewart, Radio and the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement

Shelley Stewart retired with fanfare from WATV-AM last week. The wire service story focused on his long tenure as a Birmingham disc jockey (originally known as Shelley the Playboy) and talk show host, his membership in the Black Radio Hall of Fame, his ability to attract a white teenage audience at the height of the civil rights movement in the most violently racist city in America, and the Ku Klux Klan describing the records he played as “jungle music.” It mentioned that Stewart co-owned WATV and that he is working on a memoir.

It told less than half the story. A quotation from what looks like the proposal for The Road South, the memoir, begins by recounting Stewart’s father murdering his mother with an ax, he and his siblings eating fried rat for Sunday dinner, and winds up with him owning the station and a $40 million company.

The Road South material mentions Stewart “scorching the airwaves with incendiary social commentary and information vital to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the rising civil rights movement.” Now we’re getting somewhere.

Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer-winning Carry Me Home: Birmingham Alabama and the Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Movement the most detailed report on the Birmingham civil rights movement, establishes Stewart and fellow WENN AM DJ “Tall Paul” Dudley White as indispensable to the Birmingham movement attracting activist students. Between playing James Brown records and making fun of racist cop Bull Connor getting busted on morals charges, Stewart and White provided the crucial information that led kids into the movement. They “were happy to go on the radio and announce ‘hot luncheon’ at the [Gaston motel, movement headquarters] for some of their friends–beauty queens and football stars they had gotten to know at school dances. Twenty or thirty high school big shots and church youth leaders showed up for a strategy meeting…Their assignment was to start a ‘whisper campaign’ on upcoming workshops and youth rallies.”

The Klan had seen it coming: they cut down the WENN radio tower in 1958 in an attempt to get Stewart off the air. That didn’t work. The more effective corporate methods of choking off radio’s power hadn’t been invented yet.

On May 2, 1963, black kids all over Birmingham heard Stewart announce, “Kids, there’s going to be a party at the park. Bring your toothbrushes because lunch will be served.” As McWhorter notes, this was a coded call for a mass demonstration; you need your toothbrush when you go to jail. Eight hundred kids, some as young as six, skipped school and the principal of the black high school locked the gates. More kids swarmed over the fence. “It’s really coooold,” said the WENN announcer at one o’clock. (The temperature was above 80.) That signal set more than thousand kid set out to march and be arrested. As a result, the movement, which had withered, found new life.

Another day, Stewart and White told the kids to bring their raincoats. The weather didn’t call for it but trenchcoats provided perfect cover for banners and picket signs.

This reveals not only the inspirational world of the civil rights movement, which galvanized communities like black Birmingham for righteous action. It also shows what was possible when radio could still be used for human purposes, not just to make money.

McWhorter reports that on May 2, the white station manager, who’d heard the code words on the air and guessed what they meant, just gave Stewart “an indulgent smile.” I don’t know what the white kids thought. Maybe they were just waiting for the next record to spin. It could have been Ruby and the Romantics, singing one of the biggest hits that spring, “Our Day Will Come.”

Our job, it seems to me, is to try to make it come again. Remembering what Shelley the Playboy and the kids of Birmingham set in motion, and how they did it, is a place to begin.

DeskScan
(what’s playing in my office)

[Last week’s comment about people imitating this list was not meant as discouragement. Let a hundred Deskscans bloom!]

1. The Eminem Show, Eminem (Universal)

[Not just Detroit chauvinism; the boy does get it about bass lines, he’s smart and funny and who says you have to hate everyone he hates, such as himself.]

2. Human Being Lawnmower: The Baddest & Maddest of the MC5 (Total Energy)

[I keep thinking there must be some exaggeration here, but these live tracks, outtakes, exhortations, etc. add up to as great a document of this great band as any I’ve ever heard. Not to be missed: John Sinclair’s liner notes in which he declares that Rob Tyner had more political influence on him than he did on Rob and that this stuff has nothing to do with punk.]

3. 1000 Kisses, Patty Griffin (ATO)

4. “This Land is Nobody’s Land,” John Lee Hooker

5. The Roots of Van Morrison (Catfish)

[The obvious (Leadbelly, Hank Williams), the obtuse (Fisk Jubilee Singers), and best of all Barbecue Bob explaining the real meaning of “He ain’t give you none.”]

6. Sleepless, Peter Wolf (Artemis/Sony advance)

7. You’re Gonna Need That Pure Religion, Rev. Pearly Brown (Arhoolie)

8. By the Hand of the Father, Alejandro Escovedo (Texas Music Group)

9. Tonight at Johnny’s Speakeasy, Jo Serrapere & the Willie Dunns (Detroit Radio Co.)

10. All Over Creation,, Jason Ringenberg (Yep Roc)

11. Return of a Legend, Jody Williams (Evidence)

12. Try Again, Mike Ireland and Holler (Ashmont)

13. Milky White Way: The Legendary Recordings 1947-1952, The Trumpeteers (P-Vine)

14. Veni, Vidi, Vicious, The Hives (Sire/Burning Heart/Epitaph)

15. 2 Johnsons are Better Than One, Syl & Jimmy Johnson (Evidence)

Dave Marsh coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. He can be reached at: marsh6@optonline.net

Dave Marsh’s Previous DeskScan Top 10 Lists:

June 4, 2002

May 27, 2002

May 20, 2002

May 14, 2002

May 6, 2002

April 30, 2002

April 22, 2002

April 15, 2002

April 9, 2002

April 2, 2002

March 25, 2002

March 18, 2002

March 11, 2002

More articles by:

Dave Marsh edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: rockrap@aol.com. Dave blogs at http://davemarsh.us/

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