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Plessy v. Ferguson

The Impact of the Court on the Music Phrase ‘Rock and Roll’

The Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 1896, allowed "white America" to construct and maintain a complex physical and psychological wagon train encirclement around itself. The ruling effectively excluded once enslaved Negroes from full American citizenship, often by violent subjugation means. It also allowed the general white press to largely ignore blacks for nearly four decades, including the coining process of the music phrase "rock and roll."

Nonetheless, after WWII, the "high court" ruling could not withstand a magnetic confluence between radio broadcasting and the near-universal attraction by white teens a to black "blues and rhythm" music. Racial segregation began to change in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Via radio, black music record sales, and cultural appeal began crossing racial lines and defying racial, social, and economic boundaries.

Bill Haley, of Rock Around The Clock fame, was among the early white American post-WWII adopters of the popular rhythm and blues and cultural expression, rock, and roll. Haley appears to have accepted the music but was silent about its creators. For example, he exhibited behavior that overlooked and separated African Americans from the creation and naming of rock and roll music; while simultaneously bestowing the honors upon others. Said, Haley:

"In 1952 I wrote a tune called "Rock-A-Beatin' Boogie," and the song started with the lyrics: "Rock, rock, rock everybody. Roll, roll, roll, everybody"....and a few years later Alan Freed was to use this and coined the phrase rock and roll."

Haley's position marked an early sign of a false history yet to be written; that rock and roll was not an African American cultural creation.

Alan Freed, the legendary radio personality, is certainly the main figure most associated with the diffusion of the term rock and roll as a synonym of rhythm and blues music among white Americans. On the radio, in the movies, at live rhythm and blues concerts that he produced or emceed, Alan Freed pushed the phrase "rock and roll." Unlike Haley and some others, Freed proudly recognized that the music, rhythm, and blues, was replete with references to "roll and rock," and taken together, stands as a great contribution to America, and was made by African Americans.

In 1955, Freed took his stand, at the height of white supremacy's attempt to reject the "race equity" ruling made by the US Supreme, Brown vs. Topeka 1954. The decision overturned Plessey of 1896. Said Freed:

"To me, this campaign against Rock and Roll smells of discrimination of the worst kind against the great and accomplished Negro songwriters, musicians, and singers who are responsible for this outstanding contribution to American music." Downbeat, 1955

Learn more about how high court rulings impacted the cultural appropriation of the term rock and roll.

Joel Whitburn's Top R&B Singles 1942–1995 Record Research, Inc. PO Box 200, Menomonee Fall, Wisconsin 53052-0200 USA 1996.
Copyright © 2020 by Lawrence N. Redd