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Racism, Control, and Rock and Roll

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Civil rights laws are among the most repugnant forms of political control in American society. Not only are they a severe violation of the principles of freedom, they also have totally failed to achieve their purported end — the elimination of racism in America.

Few intelligent people will deny that racial prejudice is itself morally abhorrent. And being half-Mexican, I know from personal experience that it is not pleasant to be at the receiving end of prejudice against Hispanics (or half-breeds!). But does the wrongful nature of racism mean that such social conduct should be turned over to the coercive power of government? No!

First, how can an individual be considered free if government officials have the power to coerce him, through fine or imprisonment, to associate with people with whom he does not desire to associate? It is the essence of individual liberty to be able to choose one’s friends and associates without interference from the political authorities.

Moreover, the bedrock of freedom is private ownership of property. How can a person be considered free if he can be coerced, through fine or imprisonment, into selling what supposedly belongs to him to a person to whom he would rather not sell? It is the essence of private ownership of property that a person have the right to do whatever he wants with his own property, as long as it is peaceful.

Racial prejudice, of course, has long existed in American society. Nowhere was this better exemplified in this century than in the segregation laws which American politicians and bureaucrats enforced in the 1950s. Did segregation laws guarantee the freedom and private property rights of individuals? On the contrary! These equally offensive forms of political control constituted the denial of individual freedom and private property. Why? Because they prohibited blacks and whites, through fine or imprisonment, from voluntarily associating with each other in many social and business contexts.

The crucial question is: Why did the politicians and bureaucrats believe that segregation laws were necessary? Why didn’t they simply leave people free to discriminate or not on a purely private basis? Why did they force them to discriminate with segregation laws? Because they knew that the market process would impose tremendous financial costs on racists and ultimately break down racial barriers in America.

Are there any examples of where the market, rather than the government, has accomplished this end? Yes! One of the best examples involves one of the most controversial activities in 20th-century America: rock and roll.

The story of rock and roll has been told in many books, among which are You Say You Want a Revolution by Robert G. Pielke and The Story of Rock by Carl Belz. From the very beginning, it was the music of the young, and was hated and reviled by the old. Why? Not simply because the music itself was distasteful to adults. The animosity against rock and roll went much deeper than that. Rock and roll shook the foundations of values and beliefs held dear by grown-ups in the 1950s.

One of the most important social teachings during that time was that blacks were inferior to whites and, therefore, that it was unacceptable for whites to associate with blacks. The best example of this was found in government schools. With segregation, and the battle against integration, in government schools, American teenagers were taught by their parents and government officials that it was socially detestable for whites to be with blacks.

Along came rock and roll and turned that teaching upside down. While rock and roll had its roots in various strands of American music, i.e., country/western and gospel, its biggest foundation was rhythm and blues or “race music” as it was known in the 1950s. While whites were enjoying the sweet, innocent sounds of the Big Bands, rhythm and blues, with its especially strong sexual overtones, predominated among blacks.

It was natural for white parents to expect their children to pursue their same musical interests. But it was not to be. When Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was played in the 1955 movie The Blackboard Jungle, a story of student protest in a government school, rock and roll became the music of choice for American teenagers.

While parents were resisting their children’s growing love for rock and roll, teenagers were listening to it on the radio late at night (after their parents had gone to bed). Many well-established radio stations refused to play the new music, but teenagers would carefully search the radio band for the few that did. (My favorite was an Oklahoma City station more than 500 miles from my home.)

And along came Sam Phillips, the entrepreneur par excellence, who shook the world by looking for a white man who sang like a black man. One day the invisible hand of the market brought into his studio the man who would become the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. Elvis was hated and condemned by grown-ups. But teenagers didn’t care, and Elvis became the social phenomenon of the century. (While on our way to a national student council convention when I was in the 9th grade, a few of us discovered that Elvis was staying in our motel. I knocked on his door and asked if Elvis would come out to visit. At about midnight, Elvis Presley came down to the pool and spent some time visiting with a few of us. It did not take long to see that he was a great person and that what grown-ups were saying about him was untrue.)

The white racists were furious over the trend toward rock and roll. But not just because teenagers were rejecting their social teaching. Well-established financial interests were getting hurt by the market process. Radio stations which played only the “correct” music were losing market share and, therefore, advertising revenue.

There was also a tremendous upheaval in the record business. Small independent record companies called “indies” were experiencing phenomenal growth rates by producing rock and roll records. And the well-established record companies which concentrated on the traditional music were losing a major share of the market.

Rock and roll was providing a vehicle by which blacks could out-compete whites and accumulate wealth. There were numerous success stories; among the best known was Berry Gordy, Jr., and his Motown Records, who produced such rock and roll greats as The Supremes, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and The Temptations. Blacks were getting wealthy, and white racists were infuriated.

The market process was also bringing whites and blacks closer together in other ways. Buddy Holly, who created some of the most beautiful music ever written, shocked the black audience at the Apollo Theater in New York City. (No white act had ever played the Apollo!) And they loved him! White teenagers were flocking to see Chuck Berry sing “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Maybellene,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” And, horror of horrors, white and black musicians were even travelling together!

The world of racial separation for which adults longed in the 1950s was disintegrating among their children. And it was occurring not as a result of government coercion but in spite of it.

The response of the political authorities was not amusing. In some cases, rock concerts were banned by ordinance. Musicians were arrested on questionable charges. But the most tragic abuse of political power came from the United States government which, with its payola investigation, did everything it could to destroy rock and roll.

Payola was a practice in which record companies would pay disc jockies to promote their records. Payola was well-known and well-established in the music business and had been going on long before the advent of radio. But U.S. Congressmen had not objected when musicians in the Big Band era were paid to play a composer’s music. It was only when rock and roll became popular among the youth of America that the politicians’ wrath came in the form of a Congressional investigation of an activity that was harming no one. While the political investigation cast a wide net over rock and roll, its ultimate brunt was felt by Alan Freed, a disc jockey who was the first to coin the term “rock and roll.” Freed was one of the earliest and most successful promoters of rock and roll, is generally recognized as the “Father of Rock and Roll,” and appeared in the rock and roll movie, Rock Around the Clock. But all that ended with the Congressional attempt to destroy rock and roll. In one of the ugliest abuses of political power in American history, U.S. Congressmen brutalized and butchered Alan Freed. He died a broken man in 1965 at the age of 43.

But the politicians and the racists, despite their fervent hopes and valiant efforts, have never been able to destroy rock and roll and its wonderful influence on American culture.

Reliance on the market, rather than government, to break down racial barriers ensures that the costs of racial prejudice are self-imposed rather than externally imposed. If the racist radio station owner, for example, chooses not to play the music of blacks, he foregoes the advertising revenue which could be used to improve the lot of his family. He bears the cost which his racial prejudice has induced him to impose upon himself!

The market process also enables racists to vent their prejudices by engaging in discrimination. Denying them this opportunity does not eliminate the racism under which they suffer; instead, it compresses it in a “pressure cooker” which ultimately is bound to explode.

Rock and roll has been one of the most revolutionary cultural phenomena in American history. It has produced some of the world’s most beautiful music. Of course, not all of its music has been popular (or good), but that is the essence of a free society — the legal protection of those peaceful activities which the majority dislike.

But rock and roll did more than just contribute to the musical heritage of the world. It also sent deep and profound quakes through some of the most wrongful beliefs of American adults. The social upheaval began with challenges to racial prejudice but it did not end there. A few years later, appeared an individual named Bob Dylan, one of the world’s greatest poets and ironically a product of America’s government schools. Through the message of his music, Dylan pierced the conscience of a generation during the most controversial war in American history.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.