Apr 10 2008

People Get Ready, Curtis Mayfield’s 1964 song about racism and liberation theology

People get ready, there’s a train comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’
You don’t need no ticket you just thank the lord

People Get Ready
Curtis May
field and the Impressions 1964

The anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King assassination was this week on April 4th. Dr. King was killed 40 years ago in 1968.

There were many stories on National Public Radio about Dr.King, his dedication to the civil rights of African Americans, and other disenfranchised minority groups in American society in the early 1960’s.

One story I heard was that of Curtis Mayfield, a legendary musician, businessman and civil rights visionary.

NPR talked about Curtis from the vantage point of the lyrics of his music.

As Dr. King used the language of Christianity to forge a liberation theology for African Americans, Curtis Mayfield used music in a similar way. One of his popular songs was People Get Ready.
On NPR last week, People Get Ready was played with a focus on the lyrics of liberation. The theme is “a train is coming” and it is a liberation train. You don’t need any baggage or ticket, just faith to get on board.

Read the entire lyrics, or better yet, dust off your vinyl and play the entire song.

I was about 11 years old when the song came out and I remember singing along to it anytime it played on the radio.

Even when I was older and more aware, I never understood the deeper liberation meaning of the song.

I am able to acknowledge my own subtle forms of racism as I write this. Much like Barak Obama’s grandmother, I too grew up in an extended family where racist slurs were often present. I even remember hearing jokes about the developmentally disabled boy across the alley from my grandmother’s house.

How much of that institutional and individual racism did I internalize? Probably more than I would like to admit right now.
As a caucasion boy, I was part of the dominant culture and did not need to confront the entrenched racism of our culture. Separate water fountains, sitting on the back of the bus, witholding the right to vote…these were all part of the culture in which I lived. I was alive then.

I had my own emotional and psychological chains to deal with, but what of those other families struggling to do so much with so little?
The fact that I did not see it so clearly back then speaks to the hidden impact of racism.

It took me 40 years to understand the liberation themes of this song while listening to it with commentary during the NPR show.

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