Mavis Staples Sings The Soundtrack Of Civil Rights

Last week's civil rights summit in Texas had a musical through-line: the voice of Mavis Staples. The R&B artist's body of work underscored the '50s and '60s civil rights movement.

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Mavis Staples has one of those voices that makes you stop and listen.


MAVIS STAPLES: (Singing) Oh, oh. I know a place. Ain't nobody crying. Ain't nobody worried, no. Ain't no smiling faces, no, no. Lying to the races.

SIMON: That's Mavis Staples singing with her father and her sisters, The Staple Singers. They had number one hits on the Billboard charts, but they also provided a soundtrack for the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s. Mavis Staples talked about that part of her career this week at an event in Austin, TX, marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And NPR's Don Gonyea was there.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It was called the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library this week. As these things go, this one was a pretty big deal. Four presidents attended - Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Veterans of the civil rights struggles, like John Lewis and Andrew Young, recalled the battles they survived. And there was Mavis Staples.


STAPLES: (Singing) Why am I treated so bad? Tell me why, oh, why, am I treated so bad?

GONYEA: Mavis Staples is now 74 years old, her voice rich and deep and strong. The song is "Why (Am I Treated so Bad)." She says it was Dr. Martin Luther King's favorite of The Staple Singers', who performed it at so many civil rights marches and rallies.


STAPLES: (Singing) You know I'm all alone as I sing this song. Hear my call. I've done nobody wrong, but I'm treated so bad.

GONYEA: Earlier in the week, Staples joined a panel discussion at the LBJ conference. She recalled her very first meeting with Dr. King. The 'Pops' she refers to here is her father, Pops Staples. He was the leader of the group.


STAPLES: We happened to be in Montgomery, AL on a Sunday morning. So Pops called my sisters and I to his room. He said, listen y'all, this man Martin is here, Martin Luther King. We didn't know Dr. King. Pops, he keeps secrets, you know.

GONYEA: So they all got in the car and went to church to see Dr. King preach. After the service, Mavis recalls, Pops Staples said this to his daughters...


STAPLES: I like this man's message. I really like his message. And I think that if he can preach it, we can sing it.


STAPLES: (Singing) March for freedom's highway. March each and every day. March up freedom's highway. March each and every day.


STAPLES: I was there, and I'm still here. I'm on the battlefield, and I'm fighting. And I won't stop. Every concert that I do today, I'm still singing freedom songs. I'm still singing. I'm not going to let it go 'cause I'm a witness. I'm a living witness, you know. Yes. Yes, indeed.

GONYEA: In 1961, The Staple Singers sang for President Kennedy's inaugural celebration. This week, Mavis Staples sang for President Obama before his speech to the LBJ Civil Rights Summit.


STAPLES: (Singing) Everybody. We shall overcome. Sing it. We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day.

GONYEA: Don Gonyea, NPR News, Boston.


STAPLES: (Singing) Deep in my heart, you know I, I do believe that we shall overcome some day.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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