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The Beatles, Blackbird and Racial Inequality

The Beatles are a household name and one of the most successful bands of all time, as well as a four-piece reputable for their anti-war sentiment and their preaching of peace. However, what remains undiscovered for many is that their impact extended further, to the issue of racial equality.

In 1964, The Beatles began their first world tour. As the band began selling out stadiums worldwide, the sudden surge of Beatlemania secured the group’s position as a global phenomenon. It was during their return to the US in September 1964 that a simple act of defiance by the four Liverpudlians helped to combat the growing issue of American race relations in the 60s.

The band were set to perform at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida on 11th September. However, this simple concert transpired to be The Beatles’ first major encounter with the social injustice of racism in the US, which appeared to the band to be entirely alien and completely unfounded. Upon arrival they were informed that the audience would be segregated into White and Black spectators, a condition that had not been permitted by the band. In protest to the segregation, the group decided not to play the concert. Their decision, which risked greatly upsetting state officials, represented a tremendous act of defiance to the racist federal institution of Florida. Furthermore, the band’s solid moral grounding risked them massive financial and social backlash, given that they had not yet “conquered” America. John Lennon stated at the time, “we never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now. I’d sooner lose our appearance money.”

A year after the events took place, a clause became legally bound in their future contracts stating that The Beatles would not play to racially segregated audiences. Sir Paul McCartney said that the events surrounding the Jacksonville concert were simply “common sense, but it turned out to be quite a statement.”

The Gator Bowl concert was not the last time that the band would make a statement surrounding racial equality. The relentless struggle of the Civil Rights Movement in the Spring of 1968 has been confirmed by McCartney on several occasions to have heavily inspired the song “Blackbird.” The song uses symbolism to indirectly articulate the racial struggle of Black Americans and their fight for equality. The “Blackbird” makes reference to a Black girl who is waiting for the “moment to arise”, when equality is eventually assured. Only then will she be able to take her “broken wings” of racial injustice and “learn to fly”. McCartney took to Twitter to highlight his frustration that, sixty years after the events of the Jacksonville concert, racism is still an ongoing issue not only in the US but worldwide. He urged his online audience, “we all need to work together to overcome racism in any form.” This statement was followed by a list of organisations to support in the fight against racial injustice, including: Blacklivesmatter.com and Colorofchange.org.

In director Ron Howard’s documentary: The Beatles: Eight Days A Week, The Beatles drummer Ringo Starr said that the mindset of the band was always “we play to people”. Therefore, the idea that The Beatles were simply a band which produced apolitical pop music is completely unfounded. Their morals were set, and they spoke out for what they believed in, no matter the consequences for themselves.  However, the racial injustices that The Beatles publicly condemned back in 1964 have yet to be solved as we continue to struggle for equality. It would certainly appear as though we are still “waiting for this moment to arise.”

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