Spinning a tale of duty and money

Dancing in the Street
October 20, 2000

During the 1960s, the Detroit-based and African-American owned Motown Corporation, under the presiding genius of Berry Gordy Jr, released a string of hit recordings by such artists as Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells and The Supremes. SuzAnne Smith (a native of Detroit, and history professor at George Mason University) observes that the crossover "Motown sound" appealed as much to white as to black audiences and "symbolised the possibility of amicable racial integration through popular culture". She then offers some interesting - if not entirely convincing - reflections on black Detroit, the rise of Motown and its ambivalent responses to the civil rights struggle.

In 1963, the company released a spoken-word recording of Martin Luther King's speech at a Great March to Freedom rally held in the city's Cobo Hall, marking the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 20th anniversary of the Detroit race riot of 1943, during which 34 people (25 black) were killed. King, who was in Detroit to raise funds for his Birmingham, Alabama, campaign, used the plangent "I have a dream" phrase, usually associated with his Lincoln Memorial address during the March on Washington two months later. In releasing King's Detroit oration, Motown, Smith suggests, had firmly identified itself with black culture and campaigns for racial integration. She takes issue with Brian Ward's assertion (in Just My Soul Responding , 1998) that Gordy released the Detroit recording only to capitalise on King's more celebrated speech. Whatever the truth of the matter, Gordy emerges here (and elsewhere) as a consummate opportunist, in the mould of his hero Booker T. Washington. King was later to sue Motown when it attempted to record his March on Washington address, although he later recanted and signed an exclusive recording contract with the company.

Motown was firmly rooted in the city's African-American community, but was torn "between its role as an independent producer of black culture and its goals as a black capitalist enterprise". Gordy's decision to move his operations to Los Angeles in 1972 is seen as "a betrayal of the city's black community". Another verdict could be that he was simply trying to maximise profits and markets. Again, Smith asserts that "only Motown Records, which was the most profitable black business in America in 1973, could have reconfigured the racial composition of Detroit's corporate economy".

Smith describes Detroit's lively and often acrimonious "cultural politics", which were based on its black newspapers, churches, radio stations and recording studios. There are also biographies of the city's dominant black personalities - including the ministers C. L. Franklin (father of Aretha) and Albert B. Cleage, a supporter of Malcolm X. Detroit's importance as a focus for the great migration of blacks from the South and home of the US automobile industry receives proper recognition. The book poses more questions than it answers, but is still a welcome addition to the literature on African-American urban culture in the civil-rights era.


John White is reader in American history, University of Hull.

Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit

Author - Suzanne E. Smith
ISBN - 0 674 00063 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £15.50
Pages - 319

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