Through message songs like “Why am I Treated So Bad?” and “March up Freedom Highway,” Mavis Staples, as part of the family group The Staples Singers, became the voice of the Civil Rights movement. Staples, who will be the keynote performer for Northwestern’s Martin Luther King Day celebration, often marched and performed with Dr. King. Throughout her 40-year music career, Staples has continued her message of equality and respect in her music.
In a phone interview the week before her performance, Staples discussed her relationship with Dr. King, her music and her excitement about the Obama presidency.
How did you first meet Dr. King?
We first met Dr. King in Mongomery, Alabama in 1961. Pops [father Roebuck Staples] had been hearing Dr. King on the radio and he liked what he was hearing. So he called us to his room and told us that Dr. King was in Montgomery and invited us to the church. Afterward, Dr. King was standing at the door to shake the worshippers’ hands. Our sisters and I walked past Dr. King but Pops stood and talked. We get back to the hotel and Pops said,“Listen, I like this man’s message and I think that if he can preach it, we can sing it.” So we began writing freedom songs and message songs.
My fondest memory is his laughter. I can hear it right now, the tone of his laughter. Dr. King laughed so seldom. Most of the time I’d see him, he was looking serious or sad. To hear him laugh, my heart was happy because Dr. King was happy.
Does your music mean anything different today than it did 40 years ago?
Back in the ‘60s, it was needed more. But it’s still the same meaning. I still see what needs to be done. I saw Katrina and I saw people in this black water, standing on the roof with help signs and stuffed into a stadium with no water or air conditioning. Nobody has come to help them. The 9th Ward is still in rubble.
Pops used to say, “If you want to write for the Staples, read the headlines.” We sang about what’s happening in the world today. I still read the headlines and watch the news.
How do you feel about the fact that we will have a black man as president?
All we can do is pray and hope for the best and give Obama all of the support we can. As far as young black men and women, it’s already turning them around. I just know that Dr. King is pleased that this has happened. I’m sure Dr. King and my Pops just had a big celebration up in heaven. Pops is playing guitar for Dr. King and my mom is making sweet potato pie.
Mavis Staples will perform at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall at noon on Monday.