In 1965, the American south was in the midst of the civil rights movement and Trail native, Mike Kobluk, was there.
A founding member of the Chad Mitchell Trio, Kobluk has had the privilege of performing with some of the music industry’s biggest names including Harry Belafonte, John Denver and Pat Boone.
But, one event that sticks out for Kobluk is joining Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama to march for African American civil rights.
The goal was to ensure equal access to voter registration for all citizens, regardless of their skin colour. The march lasted five days as non-violent protesters walked 54 miles, nearly 90 kilometres, to the steps of the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery.
The event has been portrayed on the big screen in the recent film, “Selma,” and is nominated for Best Picture at the 2015 Academy Awards.
So how did a singing trio based in Spokane end up a part of one of the most famous civil rights movement happenings in history?
“We worked with Harry Belafonte early in our professional life culminating our first year on the East Coast with a concert at Carnegie Hall hosted by Belafonte and featuring Miriam Makeba, Odetta, the Belafonte Singers, and of course The Chad Mitchell Trio,” said Kobluk. “Over time we would occasionally renew our association with Belafonte and so when this particular march was being organized years later, Belafonte was asked by organizers to assemble some of his friends in support. Our reputation on records and in performance put us on Belafonte’s list. He asked if we’d join him and Dr. Martin Luther King. We proudly accepted.”
Defending the rights of those pushed aside by society was a fight that Kobluk and the Trio championed well before the march began. Their political views came through loud and clear in satirical folk songs like “The Draft Dodger Rag,” and “Barry’s Boys,” referencing Barry Goldwater’s 1964 race for president.
“The Mitchell Trio performed songs of political and social commentary, not exclusively, but such material was an important part of any program,” said Kobluk. “Equal opportunity and voting rights for all, were high on our personal and professional priority list and fodder for such commentary.”
The danger that had presented itself at previous civil rights marches did not deter the singing group from showing their support for the cause.
“We enthusiastically accepted the invitation, even knowing that prior marches in Selma had erupted in considerable violence, including the murder of Viola Liuzzo,” he said.
Liuzzo was a white woman, a housewife and human rights activist from Detroit who was executed by the Ku Klux Klan while driving demonstrators to and from the Montgomery, Alabama airport in March of 1965.
Braving the potential violence and backlash from opposition groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, was worth the risk.
President Lyndon B. Johnson and the 1965 U.S. Congress didn’t allow the marches to go unnoticed.
Just a few months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, allowing equal access to voter registration for all American citizens.
Kobluk says that while he knew the marches were vital at the time, the full effect the event had on history didn’t occur to him until later.
“At the time, we knew it was important, but the total impact was not felt, or realized for some time,” he said. “Time, for President Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act and time for the impact of such events to change people’s thinking. I can only speak for myself, but we are extremely proud to have been a small part of history in the making.”
Even though the marches in Selma are seen as a piece of the past, Kobluk says the fight isn’t finished.
“Dr. King’s efforts are not fully realized and the effort is not over,” he said. “Our congress is still fighting over a woman’s right for equal pay for equal work. Voters in poor black and brown areas of (the United States) are being disenfranchised, primarily by Republican efforts. Raising minimum wage is a priority to help our working poor rise above the poverty level. Higher education at affordable prices, and not just for the rich. And the list continues. We were fortunate to be a part (of the march), but by no means are Dr. King’s efforts over. After 50 years, they are just beginning.”