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Inner City “Blues”: Music and Societal Frustrations in the Wake of the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

This eLesson was written by Jotwan Daniels, a member of the BRI Teacher Council.

Lesson Introduction: Following World War II, America experienced a dramatic economic boom – and a dramatic reorientation of American ideals at home. Prior to the war, many Americans had lived in metropolitan areas where they could find jobs and housing. But in the post-war years, population growth occurred not only in central cities, but in the suburban areas that ringed the urban core. Cities, long the heart of urban society and culture, lost jobs and population during a phenomenon known as “White Flight.” Poverty, crime, and cultural tensions between a growing number of minorities and whites led to many of the latter leaving cities in the Northeast and Midwest for the suburbs.  By 1960, almost as many Americans lived in suburban areas as in city centers. This changing cultural landscape and the assassination of the great civil rights leader MLK contributed to a spark in anger amongst African Americans, who used a variety of outlets, including music, to express their frustration.

Learning Objectives:

  • Understand the backlash that occurred in cities after the assassination of Dr. King
  • Analyze how changes in postwar popular ideology transformed residential patterns and family life in the city center and the suburbs of the 1960s.
  • Evaluate the issues affecting and transforming urban life in the 1960s

Activity Plan: Begin class with NBC Flashback Video of Dr. King’s assassination.  Ask the class, “so what happened after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination?”  Move to the article, “Why People Rioted After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassination” about the riots.  After the article ask the following questions:

  1. Why was the National Guard in Wilmington, Delaware in November of 1968?
  2. Why was Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee prior to his assassination?
  3. What are other reasons that are attributed to the riots?
  4. How might have the divisions between the inner cities and the suburbs contributed to the violence and riots?
  5. Who was the President of the United States during the riots?
  6. How did cities and states respond after the president spoke on national television?
  7. How did other cities sidestep the violence?

After reading the article, discuss the following questions with students:

  1. What is the inner city?
  2. How might the riots have defined the inner city?
  3. What are different ways that individuals express frustrations?
  4. How is the art of music used to give voice to frustrations individuals are feeling?

Play “Inner City Blues” by Marvin Gaye.  Explain to students that Marvin Gaye was an American singer, songwriter, and record producer who helped mold the Motown sound of the 1960s.  After the first listen,  place students in pairs with a copy of the lyrics and ask the following questions:

  1. Identify three to four problems Gaye sings about within the lyrics.
  2. Read the following lyrics of the song and reinterpret it in your own words. Explain its meaning.  What challenges are these lines alluding to?
  • “Inflation no chance

  • To increase finance

  • Bills pile up sky high

  • Send that boy off to die”

3. What do you think it means when Gaye says “Makes me want to holler the way they do my life”?

4. Within the lyrics, does Marvin Gaye offer any means for a solution to the problems he addresses? Why or why not?

Lesson Resources: NBC Flashback Video of Dr. King’s assassination “Why People Rioted After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassination” Article “Inner City Blues” Song by Marvin Gaye “Inner City Blues” Lyrics