RACISM, CONTROL, AND ROCK AND ROLL
By JACOB G. HORNBERGER
Civil rights laws are among the most repugnant forms of
political control in American society. Not only are they a
severe violation of the principles of freedom, they also have
totally failed to achieve their purported end -- the
elimination of racism in America.
Few intelligent people will deny that racial prejudice is
itself morally abhorrent. And being half-Mexican, I know from
personal experience that it is not pleasant to be at the
receiving end of prejudice against Hispanics (or half-
breeds!). But does the wrongful nature of racism mean that
such social conduct should be turned over to the coercive
power of government? NO!
First, how can an individual be considered free if government
officials have the power to coerce him, through fine or
imprisonment, to associate with people with whom he does not
desire to associate? It is the essence of individual liberty
to be able to choose one's friends and associates without
interference from the political authorities.
Moreover, the bedrock of freedom is private ownership of
property. How can a person be considered free if he can be
coerced, through fine or imprisonment, into selling what
supposedly belongs to him to a person to whom he would rather
not sell? It is the essence of private ownership of property
that a person have the right to do whatever he wants with his
own property, as long as it is peaceful.
Racial prejudice, of course, has long existed in American
society. No where was this better exemplified in this century
than in the segregation laws which American politicians and
bureaucrats enforced in the 1950s. Did segregation laws
guarantee the freedom and private property rights of
individuals? On the contrary! These equally offensive forms of
political control constituted the denial of individual freedom
and private property. Why? Because they prohibited blacks and
whites, through fine or imprisonment, from voluntarily
associating with each other in many social and business
The crucial question is: Why did the politicians and
bureaucrats believe that segregation laws were necessary? Why
didn't they simply leave people free to discriminate or not on
a purely private basis? Why did they force them to
discriminate with segregation laws? Because they knew that the
market process would impose tremendous financial costs on
racists and ultimately break down racial barriers in America.
Are there any examples of where the market, rather than the
government, has accomplished this end? Yes! One of the best
examples involves one of the most controversial activities in
20th century America: rock and roll.
The story of rock and roll has been told in many books, among
which are You Say You Want a Revolution by Robert G. Pielke
and The Story of Rock by Carl Belz. From the very beginning,
it was the music of the young, and was hated and reviled by
the old. Why? Not simply because the music itself was
distasteful to adults. The animosity against rock and roll
went much deeper than that. Rock and roll shook the
foundations of values and beliefs held dear by grown-ups in
One of the most important social teachings during that time
was that blacks were inferior to whites and, therefore, that
it was unacceptable for whites to associate with blacks. The
best example of this was found in government schools. With
segregation, and the battle against integration, in government
schools, American teenagers were taught by their parents and
government officials that it was socially detestable for
whites to be with blacks.
Along came rock and roll and turned that teaching upside down.
While rock and roll had its roots in various strands of
American music, i.e., country/western and gospel, its biggest
foundation was rhythm and blues or "race music" as it was
known in the 1950s. While whites were enjoying the sweet,
innocent sounds of the Big Bands, rhythm and blues, with its
especially strong sexual overtones, predominated among blacks.
It was natural for white parents to expect their children to
pursue their same musical interests. But it was not to be.
When Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" was played in the
1955 movie, The Blackboard Jungle, a story of student protest
in a government school, rock and roll became the music of
choice for American teenagers.
While parents were resisting their children's growing
love for rock and roll, teenagers were listening to it on the
radio late at night (after their parents had gone to bed).
Many well-established radio stations refused to play the new
music, but teenagers would carefully search the radio band for
the few that did. (My favorite was an Oklahoma City station
more than 500 miles from my home.)
And along came Sam Phillips, the entrepreneur par excellence,
who shook the world by looking for a white man who sang like a
black man. One day the invisible hand of the market brought
into his studio the man who would become the King of Rock and
Roll, Elvis Presley. Elvis was hated and condemned by grown-
ups. But teenagers didn't care, and Elvis became the social
phenomenon of the century. (While on our way to a national
student council convention when I was in the 9th grade, a few
of us discovered that Elvis was staying in our motel. I
knocked on his door and asked if Elvis would come out to
visit. At about midnight, Elvis Presley came down to the pool
and spent some time visiting with a few of us. It did not take
long to see that he was a great person and that what grown-ups
were saying about him was untrue.)
The white racists were furious over the trend toward rock and
roll. But not just because teenagers were rejecting their
social teaching. Well-established financial interests were
getting hurt by the market process. Radio stations which
played only the "correct" music were losing market share and,
therefore, advertising revenue.
There was also a tremendous upheaval in the record business.
Small independent record companies called "indies" were
experiencing phenomenal growth rates by producing rock and
roll records. And the well-established record companies which
concentrated on the traditional music were losing a major
share of the market.
Rock and roll was providing a vehicle by which blacks could
out-compete whites and accumulate wealth. There were numerous
success stories; among the best known was Berry Gordy, Jr.,
and his Motown Records, who produced such rock and roll greats
as The Supremes, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the
Miracles, and The Temptations. Blacks were getting wealthy,
and white racists were infuriated.
The market process was also bringing whites and blacks closer
together in other ways. Buddy Holly, who created some of the
most beautiful music ever written, shocked the black audience
at the Apollo Theater in New York City. (No white act had ever
played the Apollo!) And they loved him! White teenagers were
flocking to see Chuck Berry sing "Roll Over Beethoven,"
"Maybellene," and "Sweet Little Sixteen." And, horror of
horrors, white and black musicians were even travelling
The world of racial separation for which adults longed in the
1950s was disintegrating among their children. And it was
occurring not as a result of government coercion but in spite
The response of the political authorities was not amusing. In
some cases, rock concerts were banned by ordinance. Musicians
were arrested on questionable charges. But the most tragic
abuse of political power came from the United States
government which, with its payola investigation, did
everything it could to destroy rock and roll.
Payola was a practice in which record companies would pay disc
jockies to promote their records. Payola was well-known and
well-established in the music business and had been going on
long before the advent of radio. But U.S. Congressmen had not
objected when musicians in the Big Band era were paid to play
a composer's music. It was only when rock and roll became
popular among the youth of America that the politicians' wrath
came in the form of a Congressional investigation of an
activity that was harming no one.
While the political investigation cast a wide net over rock
and roll, its ultimate brunt was felt by Alan Freed, a disc
jockey who was the first to coin the term "rock and roll."
Freed was one of the earliest and most successful promoters of
rock and roll, is generally recognized as the "Father of Rock
and Roll," and appeared in the rock and roll movie, Rock
Around the Clock. But all that ended with the Congressional
attempt to destroy rock and roll. In one of the ugliest abuses
of political power in American history, U.S. Congressmen
brutalized and butchered Alan Freed. He died a broken man in
1965 at the age of 43.
But the politicians and the racists, despite their fervent
hopes and valiant efforts, have never been able to destroy
rock and roll and its wonderful influence on American culture.
Reliance on the market, rather than government, to break down
racial barriers ensures that the costs of racial prejudice are
self-imposed rather than externally imposed. If the racist
radio station owner, for example, chooses not to play the
music of blacks, he foregoes the advertising revenue which
could be used to improve the lot of his family. He bears the
cost which his racial prejudice has induced him to impose upon
The market process also enables racists to vent their
prejudices by engaging in discrimination. Denying them this
opportunity does not eliminate the racism under which they
suffer; instead, it compresses it in a "pressure cooker" which
ultimately is bound to explode.
Rock and roll has been one of the most revolutionary cultural
phenomena in American history. It has produced some of the
world's most beautiful music. Of course, not all of its music
has been popular but that is the essence of a free society --
the legal protection of those peaceful activities which the
But rock and roll did more than just contribute to the musical
heritage of the world. It also sent deep and profound quakes
through some of the most wrongful beliefs of American adults.
The social upheaval began with challenges to racial prejudice
but it did not end there. A few years later, appeared an
individual named Boy Dylan, one of the world's greatest poets
and ironically a product of America's government schools.
Through the message of his music, Dylan pierced the conscience
of a generation during the most controversial war in American
Mr. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of
Freedom Foundation, P.O. Box 9752, Denver, CO 80209.
From the October 1990 issue of FREEDOM DAILY,
Copyright (c) 1990, The Future of Freedom Foundation,
PO Box 9752, Denver, Colorado 80209, 303-777-3588.
Permission granted to reprint; please give appropriate credit
and send one copy of reprinted material to the Foundation.