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Richard Connor: Racial justice – Is the answer still blowin’ in the wind?

In 1963 I was still in high school. The dissonance of generational music would prompt my father to ask that I turn down the volume on my records, just before he’d ask that I stop playing my favorite songs altogether.

“It’s not music,” he’d say, “and even if it was that guy can’t carry a tune in a bucket.”

“Can you believe he listens to this stuff, Alyce?” he would ask my mother.

No earbuds or even headphones in those days. Play a record, the whole house hears it.

Bob Dylan was a favorite, along with Joan Baez, who sang like a bird. Dylan had a raw, raspy voice and he had not gone electric yet, so it was all acoustic.

His lyrics hit home. They still do in his newly released album, Rough and Rowdy Ways – his first album of original songs in eight years and his 39th studio album. But we’re talking history here, not what he’s done for us lately.

’63 was the year of Blowin’ in the Wind.

How many roads must a man walk down

Before you call him a man

How many seas must a white dove sail

Before she sleeps in the sand

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly

Before they’re forever banned

Vietnam was heating up and war seemed to be Dylan’s focus, but the civil rights movement was also gaining more attention.

Our nation in tumult over race is not new but what’s happening now somehow seems new. Is it because of saturation news coverage – nonstop news shows, full of talk and opinions? Is it because everyone has a phone camera and a social media account?

Is it different now because of the focus on local police and excessive force in almost every corner of the country? In the ‘60s, the battle for civil rights seemed to be most concentrated in the South, although then as now racism knew no regional boundaries.

At the time of the 1963 Dylan song we had witnessed the assassination of the black civil rights worker Medgar Evers and then in 1965 the assassination of Malcolm X, and in 1968 the assassination of Martin Luther King.

The year prior to the song, 1962, James Meredith became the first black student at the University of Mississippi. He had applied to transfer, but the governor of the state vowed to personally block him from entering.

Let me remind you of those times and the day Meredith registered as a student. A total of 500 federal marshals and 5,000 army troops were ordered to the campus by President John F. Kennedy, to maintain safety for Meredith. There were two “bystanders” killed in a riot and 168 marshals were injured.

Meredith graduated in the summer of 1963 but had been constantly guarded by armed guards and had endured constant threats and harassment. He went on to Columbia Law School in New York but in 1966, on his way to Memphis, on foot, during what he called his “March Against Fear,” he was shot by a Klansman, Aubrey James Norvell. Norvell confessed when arrested and pleaded guilty at trial. He was sentenced to five years in prison but released after 18 months.

Given the events of the time, I knew what Dylan was asking but it was difficult to discern the answer in his refrain.

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind

All these years later, I am still perplexed about the answer. I want one now more than ever.

Here’s an interpretation I found: “The refrain ‘The answer, my friend, is blowin in the wind’ has been described as ‘impenetrably ambiguous: either the answer is so obvious it is right in your face, or the answer is as intangible as the wind.’ ”

Here we are, 57 years later, and the question remains: how many times?

Yes, ‘n’ how many years can a mountain exist

Before it is washed to the sea

Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist

Before they’re allowed to be free

Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head

And pretend that he just doesn’t see

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Black men, women, and their children weren’t free then and are not free today. The ’60s was a protest era and by 1968 there seemed to be more urgency. Martin Luther King had emerged as a leader and was gaining momentum before being assassinated.

It’s difficult to see the progress that has been made. President Lyndon B. Johnson advanced the ball by spearheading passage of major civil rights legislation in 1964 but the goal line, erasing racism, still seems far in the distance.

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must a man look up

Before he can see the sky

Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have

Before he can hear people cry

Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take ’til he knows

That too many people have died

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind

It is easy to look back and feel discouraged and pained. One of my colleagues noted the protests of today “feel different.” He is my age and as a reporter and editor has seen what I have over the years. Maybe what’s different this time is the diversity of the demonstrators – more white faces, Latinos, young people on the front lines.

And maybe the issues are clearer.

There are no “two sides” here. This is an issue about black people, and the menace of police officers who are angry, racist, out of control. It’s about killing black men and women. It’s about police who have dishonored the badge, have broken our trust, have unfairly tainted all who serve. It’s about racial justice and human decency.

If you are in business it’s important to ask yourself if you have done enough, gone the extra mile to hire black people and to promote them. More and better jobs lead to economic power. Without it, black people face an insurmountable task in rising from the abyss of 400 years of oppression.

Validity in art and music must stand the test of time and the Dylan song and others he has written have met that test. I wish Blowin’ in the Wind was no longer valid and true.

If I’d had an iPhone in my youth, my father might never have heard Bob Dylan’s song, but because he heard it we had a few awkward and disjointed conversations about what I was feeling. He never argued any opposite views. He just preferred Lawrence Welk.

We were a white family living in Bangor, Maine. The stories we read and the television images we saw were remote from us in every way. I came from a hardworking middle-class family and I like to joke with my kids about how I washed dishes in college, had college loans, received small amounts of assistance for playing football and then was fortunate enough to enjoy a wonderful journalism career filled with opportunities.

I often wonder: If I had been black, would I have had the same career? I doubt it. I represent white privilege, regardless of hard work and ambition.

The biggest impact of cellphones is the steady stream of videos that allow us to see firsthand the brutality and the killing. My father would have been firmly on my side. He distrusted power, particularly in the hands of the wealthy.

The answer is no longer blowin’ in the wind. It has come crashing down with the force of a tornado.

We need to focus on the threats and dangers to black people, the inequities and systemic racism in society; we need to demand real and lasting change.

This is a history that does not need to keep repeating itself.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at rconnor@bizpress.net