In 1958, Barry Gordy did something unheard of in America at the time: he believed he hadn’t made what he deserved.
You see, Gordy was African American. At a time when African American music was heavily influencing music, African American artists were still a rarity. Dissatisfied, Gordy hatched upon an audacious idea: a recording label featuring African American acts, sharing their music with the world. Thus, Motown Records was born, and the rest is history.
For two beautiful decades, Gordy shared the song of his people with an uncaring white nation. In so short a time, he introduced his hostile nation to the incredible talent they’d been missing. The Supremes, the Temptations, Smoky Robinson, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five…through their music, and the joy they took from it, they helped to heal a bleeding nation. They bridges divides, and they spurred integration. After all, a white person could hate Black people, but who could hate the Temptations? Through their music, the stars of Motown shared their stories, which turned out to be no different from those all Americans shared.
Decades on, the label has languished, having moved to Los Angeles and changed hands so many times. Yet the legacy endures. Musicians like Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross, once forbidden from sharing a drinking fountain with whites, are now regarded as national treasures. And yet, today more than ever, their humble beginnings and unlikely ride to fame are worth noting, and indeed celebrating.
As we mark Black History Month, most of us will recall such colossi of abolition as Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. Yet to confine our reverence to these grave figures is to ignore the brilliant figures who gave Black America a voice, and showed us its heart. We live in a different world today, mostly better, yet even as some of our leaders seek to diminish them, through the radio their voices carry on. They will carry on forever, because dreams never die.