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Pops and the Lawyer: How Music Changed One Man Who Changed the World

The process of deciding to become a musician for life is a funny experience. It’s hard to say where and when it begins, but I would guess that for most of us it starts with hearing something that moves us, and from there we not only want to experience more of that but we also want to create a similar experience for others.

Basically, wiggling air molecules made us feel things and so we want to learn how to make air wiggle so other people can feel things.

Along the way we hear and recite the familiar adage that “music can change the world,” or any number of variations on that theme. Whether out of naivete or genuine optimism, we believe it. For some of us, and for any variety of reasons, the naivete or optimism wear out after a while, and we start to wonder “how on earth is this supposed to change the world?”

At least that was my experience. At some point the humdrum daily grind of college was wearing me kind of thin, and I’ll admit I was starting to get a little jaded. It seemed like I was engaging in a useless art form that nobody cared about or was willing to engage with, and as a result the pressure of “changing the world” seemed a little…unrealistic.

Fortunately for me, I took a Jazz History class that served to rekindle a bit of that original fire with a professor that made the music building at my college seem a little bit like Hogwarts. It was a small class, with some of the hippest and most dedicated students in the department, and I loved every minute of it. Through the course of that semester we talked about the seemingly mystic origins of jazz, the “blues aesthetic,” and the role of the music in organizing and humanizing the chaos of an oppressed existence. It was all beautiful to me, but the story that stuck with me the most was that of one Charles Black, a white lawyer from Texas.

Charles Black was raised and schooled in all the customs and traditions that the post-reconstruction South inherited from their antebellum forebears. He began his college education at the height of Jim Crow and segregation and had no personal reason to question any of it. It was just the way of things. That all changed when he decided to go to a dance in expectation of meeting girls.

The music for the dance was provided by Louis Armstrong and his band. Armstrong had been advertised as the “King of the Trumpet,” but as Black recalls in his own essay on the experience, hyperbole was normal in such advertisements, and so he thought nothing of it. Once he heard the music, however, hyperbole seemed like a gross understatement. Louis Armstrong was a Genius.

Young Charles became an instant fan of Louis Armstrong, and as the years passed he habitually spent his small change on records and eventually passed from fan to devotee. The music of Louis Armstrong was a world unto itself; a world that Charles Black felt compelled to explore.

From the moment of his first encounter with Armstrong’s music and genius, Charles was forced to rethink nearly everything he had been taught as a dutiful southern white boy. The sheer impact of the music led him to reconsider the supposed nature of race relations and the legal mechanisms that reinforced old customs. The illusion of inferiority of the “other” was dissolved, and the legal foundation of its systems began to erode in his mind. Eventually, while a law professor at Yale, Black volunteered to assist Thurgood Marshall et al. at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund with the plaintiffs brief of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark case that ended public school segregation. Over the months of grueling work leading up to the actual argument at the Supreme Court, Black’s invaluable constitutional expertise and dedication to the cause led Thurgood Marshall to declare, “Charles, you are a Negro.”

It is no small thing for a White Man Raised Racist to set aside his learned bigotry. Even after decades of litigation and social struggle, many still find this difficult or undesirable. Among the many stories of upstanding citizens who have laid aside their prejudice over the years, that of Charles Black stands out. He didn’t just beat his proverbial sword into a plowshare: he used to plow his neighbor’s field. His example ought to serve as a source of inspiration to all of us, and the fact that it began with a song ought to serve as a beacon of hope to all of us who study sound and song. There may be thousands who hear but do not listen, but all it takes is one Charles Black who listens deep. If after a lifetime of concerts or records we manage to reach just one Charles Black, will it not have been worth the effort?

 

Charles L. Black, Jr., A New Birth of Freedom: Human Rights, Named and Unnamed. New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1997.

Charles L. Black, Jr., The Lawfulness of the Segregation Decisions (1960). Faculty Scholarship Series. 2586

Charles L. Black, Jr., My World with Louis Armstrong, Yale Law Journal 95, no. 8 (1986): 1595-1600

Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown V. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

Louis H. Pollak, Charles L. Black, Jr. and Civil Rights, Yale Law Journal 111, no. 8 (2002): 1905-1909

Aviam Soifer, Charles L. Black, Jr.: Commitment, Connection, and the Ceaseless Quest for Justice, Asian-Pacific Law & Policy Journal 7, no. 1 (2006): 7-31

 
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