The Summer of '63
3:57 pm
Fri June 21, 2013

Shake, Rattle And Rally: Code Songs Spurred Activism In Birmingham

Originally published on Fri June 21, 2013 6:11 pm

In 1963, civil rights activists wanted to recruit more of the city's young people to the cause. The way to their hearts was often through DJs and music. These days, Shelley "The Playboy" Stewart is the head of a major marketing firm, but in the 1950s and '60s, he was a popular DJ in Birmingham, Ala.

"They called me crazy, because I wouldn't say 'Miss so and so' on the air if a kid happened to be white," Stewart says. "I would say, 'Darling, so glad to have you on the call today, sweetheart.' And, you know, that's just not good — that's bad habits in the '50s in Birmingham, Ala."

Stewart was one of several outspoken disc jockeys — part of a group of black DJs who at one point angered the Ku Klux Klan so much that its members cut down the radio tower for the popular black station WENN. Civil rights activist James Bevel reached out to Stewart and another DJ — the late "Tall" Paul Dudley White — to help draw more kids into the movement.

"We had talked, and we had discovered that the adults would not respond," Stewart says. "They were afraid to come out and go to meetings because of fearing — losing their jobs because they were threatened by their employers. But the children were saying, 'We want our freedom,' and they were listening to what was going on on the radio. We knew that."

The DJs worked with civil rights activists to secretly spread the word about rallies or workshops they were having. Stewart says they'd sometimes signal kids by playing a certain song — one that might sound out of place in a playlist of 1960s funk stars, like Big Joe Turner's 1954 tune "Shake, Rattle and Roll."

Sometimes, the DJs would repeat coded phrases that the activists used that might signal the kids to prepare to march.

"We would say things like, 'Bring your toothbrush. You ought to brush your teeth,' " Stewart says. "That's not normal."

That meant you might spend the night in jail, so you need to bring a toothbrush.

Stewart says he was stunned when police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor met the youth marchers with fire hoses, a K-9 unit and school buses to haul them to jail.

"Kids walking up to you and parents coming down screaming and hollering about the brutality that's taking place. ... The children themselves, they were not backing down," Stewart says. "I cried, everybody cried, but the children said, 'I'm not afraid of your jail. I want my freedom.' "

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As part of NPR's look back at the summer of 1963, we've been tuning into the music of that time. Our co-host Audie Cornish was in Birmingham, Ala., this week. She put together this story about the role that DJs played in the civil rights movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY WORKOUT")

JACKIE WILSON: (Singing) Hey, you. Come out here on the floor...

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When civil rights activists at the time wanted to recruit more of Birmingham's youth to the protest struggle, they looked to DJs and music.

SHELLEY STEWART: My name nickname was Shelley, the Playboy. Now, I would use the words hey, lordy mama; you know - hey, talk about it, baby - you know? I was a street brother.

CORNISH: Shelley "The Playboy" Stewart is now head of a major marketing firm in Birmingham. But back in the 1950s and 60s, he was a popular DJ in the city, spinning tunes like this one from Jackie Wilson, "Baby Workout."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY WORKOUT")

WILSON: (Singing) Yeah, baby, work out...

BACKUP SINGERS: (Singing) Work, baby, work it out...

WILSON: (Singing) Honey, work out...

BACKUP SINGERS: (Singing) Work, baby, work it out...

WILSON: (Singing) Ah, baby, work out...

BACKUP SINGERS: (Singing) Work, baby, work out...

WILSON: (Singing) Shout and turn up the joint...

STEWART: They called me crazy because I wouldn't say "Miss So and So" on the air. If a kid who called me - who happened to have been white - I would say, hey, darling. So glad to have you on the call today, sweetheart. And, you know, that's just not good. That's bad habits in the '50s, in Birmingham, Ala.

CORNISH: Stewart was one of several outspoken disc jockeys, black DJs that at one point, angered the Klan so much they cut down the radio tower for the popular black station WENN.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY WORKOUT")

WILSON: Don't you know, don't you know, round and round we go...

CORNISH: Civil rights activist James Bevel reached out to Stewart and another DJ, the late "Tall Paul" Dudley White, to help draw more kids into the movement.

STEWART: We had talked, and we had discovered that the adults would not respond. They were afraid to come out and go to meetings because of fear of losing their jobs. They were threatened by their employers. But the children are saying, we want our freedom; and they were listening to what was going on, on the radio. We knew that.

CORNISH: The DJs worked with civil rights activists to secretly spread the word about rallies or workshops they were having. Shelley Stewart said sometimes they'd signal kids by playing a certain song, one that might sound out of place in a playlist of 1960s funk stars; for instance, this 1954 tune by Joe Turner.

STEWART: "Big Joe" Turner, in the 1950s, had recorded a record called "Shake, Rattle and Roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROLL")

BIG JOE TURNER: (Singing) Get out of that bed, wash your face and hands...

STEWART: And the lyrics went like this: (Singing) Get out of that bed, and wash your face and hands. Get out of that bed and wash your face and hands. Get in that kitchen, make some noise with the pots and pans.

Well, anybody know that record - that's different. They heard that thing; that was the "go" record there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROLL")

TURNER: (Singing) I said shake, rattle and roll. Shake, rattle and roll. Shake rattle and roll. Shake, rattle and roll. Well, you won't do right to save your doggone soul.

CORNISH: Sometimes the DJs would repeat coded phrases that the activists used that might signal the kids to prepare to march.

STEWART: We would say things like, bring your toothbrush. You ought to brush your teeth. That's not normal.

CORNISH: So if you are saying get your toothbrush, that means you might spend the night in jail so you need a toothbrush.

STEWART: Yeah, that's really what we're saying.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROLL")

TURNER: Shake, rattle and roll.

CORNISH: When Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor met the youth marchers with fire hoses, a K-9 unit and school buses to haul them to jail, Stewart said he was stunned.

STEWART: Kids walking up to you, and parents coming down screaming and hollering and - about the brutality that's taking place. And the children themselves, they were not backing down. I cried; everybody cried. But the children says, I'm not afraid of your jail. I want my freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

CORNISH: Shelley Stewart, formerly known as DJ Shelley, The Playboy. We spoke to him in Birmingham, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

SAM COOKE: (Singing) I was born by the river...

CORNISH: In the years after, Shelley Stewart says, he heard a shift in the music. Songs like Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" reflected a new consciousness and the next chapter in the world of R&B.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

COOKE: (Singing) ...ever since. It's been a long, a long time coming. But I know a change going to come. Oh, yes it will. It's been too hard living...

MELISSA BLOCK: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.