Looking Back at Motown's Civil Rights Recordings

Monday, January 20, 2014

The US clergyman and civil rights leader Martin Luther King addresses, 29 March 1966 in Paris' Sport Palace the militants of the 'Movement for the Peace'. (AFP/Getty)

Motown has become an American institution. The record label was founded by Berry Gordy Jr. and made stars of the likes of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and countless others.

But Motown also had a spoken-word label called Black Forum, which was set up by Gordy in 1970. It released compilations of speeches, poetry and oral history—among them were works by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes, Margaret Danner and Bill Cosby.

Two years after he was assassinated, the label released a speech by Dr. King called "Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam" on the Black Forum Label. 

Television and radio broadcaster Alvin Hall recently completed a half hour story on the Black Forum label for the BBC. Hall shares what he learned, the voices he spoke with and describes the ways Motown got involved in spoken word and civil rights recordings.

Hall says that Black Forum was designed to give a platform to the era's leading black intellectuals and activists. According to Hall, record executive Ewart Abner and his colleague Junius Griffin convinced Gordy to start the label, despite his reservations. Hall says that Gordy needed some convincing because he was concerned that if Motown became too political, it would undermine the success of groups like The Supremes and The Temptations. 

Hall adds that Griffin and Abner "had been involved in different aspects of the civil rights movement—whether it was C.O.R.E. or working for Martin Luther King. They saw the need to educate the public, to give the public more information about was going on nationally and they were the ones who convinced (Gordy)." 

While the label claimed some of the biggest names of the day, Hall says that it ultimately could not survive.

"What actually happened was simple economics," says Hall. "When Motown distributed records, it had a group of distributors that would order the records—they'd order 20 Supremes, 15 Temptations, and two Black Forum. There was never the demand or distribution for the records like they anticipated, so after losing money, Berry Gordy closed the door on it."

While it had a short run, Black Forum aspired to provide a permanent record of the sounds of the civil rights struggle and the sounds of the era—yet it has all but vanished from the history books.

"It literally disappeared from the landscape," says Hall of the Black Forum Label. "When Motown moved to California, and over the years they've re-issued many recordings, one of the ones they have never re-issued are the recordings from the Black Forum Label. We often wonder why because it was a time when they were committed to introducing America to the politics and other activities that were going on during that time. It seems that as history has gone along, people have forgotten about this."

Listen to the full interview to hear some clips of the original Black Forum Label recordings.

Guests:

Alvin Hall

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer

Editors:

T.J. Raphael

Comments [4]

Luis Boki from San Francisco

The Black Forum label was a tad over my level understanding since I was still in grammar school. But I do own Dr. Martin Luther King's Black Forum speeches on collectible vinyl and the CD compilation of several of his speeches released in the early 90s. It is not at all very well known that Motown, out of respect and courtesy to the family, returned to the King Estate. It demonstrates that Motown was an active participant in the Civil Rights movement though Berry was extremely cautious, and some could say "guarded", in how much visibility he allowed artists to participate.
By request from Mrs. Coretta Scott King, Diana Ross & The Supremes joined The Temptations in a benefit concert immediately after Dr. King's untimely transitioned.
Diana Ross & The Supremes made a bold and important statement a few nights after the assasinaton while performing for the Queen of England. She changed the spoken word salute during a performance of "Somewhere" by stating "let us all remember the words of Dr. King and join hands and say free at last, free at last ......thank God Almighty "free at last".
The Temptations would record the controversial "Message from a Black Man" and Stevie Wonder was saluted for his work in securing 15th of January, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as an annual national holiday.

Aug. 02 2014 09:51 AM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I have been a record dealer (among other things) for 30 years. The Black Forum records are awesome and most can be bought for around 20 bucks.I've only had a handful in 30 years. The MLK record was the one most in print. I've only had the Baraka record once!

Jan. 20 2014 05:37 PM
Cheryl Clarke from Jersey City

I want to thank Mr. Hall for his earnest discussion of Motown's "Black Forum." However, this is not the first time we have learned of the "Black Forum" series. DANCING IN THE STREET: MOTOWN AND THE CULTURAL POLITICS IN DETROIT, by Suzanne Smith, examined in 2001 the production and distribution of the Black Forum recordings.

Jan. 20 2014 04:09 PM
Sam Winston from Detroit, Michigan

why did the black movement slow down after the 80's? where did the inspirational black leadership go that existed back when these recordings were made?

Jan. 20 2014 09:51 AM

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