After first hearing about this week’s blog assignment in class, my mind immediately jumped to thinking about a song that I had first heard in high school when studying the civil rights movement in the United States. The song, Only a Pawn in their Game by Bob Dylan, was written in the early 1960s shortly after the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi. To give a bit of background, Evers is best known as a Mississippi-born African American who served in the US Army during World War II and was later denied entry in to the University of Mississippi law school. After being rejected, Evers decided to focus his efforts to working with the NAACP to desegregate schools and he quickly became a chief officer for the campaign in Mississippi. On June 12, 1963, Evers was shot in his own driveway and was soon buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. Most notably, Evers’ found murderer, Byron De La Beckwith, was tried and found ‘not guilty’ by Mississippi’s all-white juries, sparking many such as Bob Dylan to react in anger.
Dylan was one of several artists to publicly react to the incident, pointing out the flaws and unjust nature of southern society. What is interesting about Dylan’s message, however, is that he does not criticize or chastise Evers’ killer as much as he makes a scathing critique of the entire southern community, with a particular focus on upper class citizens. Specifically, Dylan points out that the way in which the southern society was structured at the time makes it hard for one to put all the blame on Evers’ killer because he “was only a pawn of rich white elites who incensed poor whites against blacks to distract them from their position on ‘the caboose of the train’” (Ben Greenman). Ultimately, Dylan directly bashes the elite members of southern society who acted as though they had no part in the radical prejudiced actions that were taking place and merely pushed the lower members of society to do the ‘dirty work’ for them.
Below are important lyrics that illustrate this point exactly:
‘The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
’Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game’
Overall, Dylan’s message was quite radical at the time because he does not simply label one person as a radical racist, but rather points out that the whole Southern social structure promotes this kind of behavior. Particularly telling of this message is the line in the middle of this stanza: ‘He’s taught in his school from the start by the rule that the laws are with him.’ Ultimately, he blatantly accuses the south of promoting the mindset that because I am white, I can get away with anything.
In the end, I thought that this song was relevant for this prompt because I think that it shows the power that music can have. In publicly criticizing the source of the problem (white elites), Dylan sent a very strong and blatant message to the rest of the United States that could not be ignored. Furthermore, I think that Dylan’s work ensures that Evers’ life will always be remembered for generations to come.
I have linked extra information about music and the civil rights movement here.