By ~ Arenthous Frazier
You know, I’m not really sure how to tell this story. Heck, I wasn’t even alive when this event occurred. But one thing is for sure: It’s my duty, honor and responsibility to tell it. So here it goes…
I was recently granted the honor and privilege of going to a screening of one of the most powerful films I have ever seen in my short time of being on this planet. But before I give you the name of the movie, I think it is more important for me to be as transparent as I can about the impact this event can have on the Black Community, and the world.
During the summer of 1969, just 100 miles from Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival was host to 300,000 people, and some of the most legendary Black and Puerto Rican music artists of all time. For me, it was great to see a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder in his youth. Or Papa Staples and The Staples Singers with Mahalia Jackson on the stage together. A very notable highlight was when Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson sang Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s favorite song Precious Lord to commemorate the anniversary of his death. And to see The 5th Dimension, Sly and The Family Stone, Gladys Knight and The Pips, Nina Simone, B.B King and so many more legendary music artists over a six week period.
It was also a time when Black and Brown communities in not just Harlem, but across the country demanded change from the systematic treatment they were receiving. The 1960’s was a tough decade for the Civil Rights movement, especially with the death of John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy. The racial divide was so bad that the New York City Police Department refused to provide security at the Harlem Cultural Festival. So, The Black Panther Party did just that.
However, security was for the most part not needed, as over 300,000 people, mostly black men, women and children alike, gathered to see their favorite artists in an environment of peace, harmony, togetherness, praise, joy, singing, dancing; all things that were great for Harlem and for the black community. You could see the joy and pride on their faces as they greeted and spoke to each other in peace and harmony.
After the festival ended in August, producer Hal Tulchin had filmed the entire festival with plans to sell the footage. Unfortunately, he was unable to find a buyer and the footage stayed locked in the basement of WNEW-TV for over 50 years.
Questlove of The Roots obtained the footage in 2021 and the movie Summer Of Soul (or when the revolution could not be televised) was released July 2 with never-seen-before footage from the festival.
Ed: the film is also currently streaming on Hulu.
I wrote all of this just to say, historically speaking, music has a way of healing and saving a nation. I am sure all of us have certain songs that we hear and know exactly what we were doing the second we first heard that song. Music changes attitudes and therefore changes the narrative.
I would like to leave you with this question: Why was this footage forgotten and will we ever be able to duplicate this kind of effect? I’m sure we have many theories and propose solutions to the question, but that’s for another time and another article.