Mavis Staples, legendary singer and activist, returns to UChicago to inspire next generation

“We’ve been taking y’all there for over 70 years. Now we want you to take us there.”

In 1962, Mavis Staples and her family took the stage at Mandel Hall for the University of Chicago Folk Festival. In between bluegrass bands and bluesmen, the gospel group shook the crowd with their spiritual sound. The next year, The Staple Singers would meet the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—a relationship that would change their music forever.

Staples recalled her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, saying of King: “I like this man's message. I think if he could preach it, we can sing it.”

The Staple Singers would go on to create iconic hits including “I’ll Take You There” and “Freedom Highway”—songs that helped provide the soundtrack for the Civil Rights era. More than 60 years later, the 84-year-old legendary singer recently returned to UChicago to perform for hundreds of high school students, undergraduate students and local community members—and to speak about her legacy using art to spark social change.

Theodosia Harris, a teacher from South Shore College Prep, prepared her students for the event by explaining that they were about to witness music royalty. 

“Once she started singing, she had them,” Harris said. “It was over; I didn’t have to say any more after that.”

The matinee event included a performance by Staples, a conversation between the singer and Greg Kot, author of I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the Music That Shaped the Civil Rights Era; and tributes by UChicago historian Adam Green, and Chicago poet laureate avery r. young. 

Staples was also honored with the Rosenberger Distinguished Visiting Artist Award, given by the University in recognition of an artist whose “outstanding achievements contribute to the benefit of humanity.”

The event was co-organized by UChicago’s Parrhesia Program for Public Discourse, which provides undergraduates with opportunities to exchange ideas.

“The Parrhesia Program is trying to make transcendently apparent what it means to fearlessly speak about being an American,” said Nora Titone, director of programming and undergraduate research. “There was something about hearing Mavis Staples sing, as she has done since she was eight years old, songs that express our highest ideals as a nation. And they're also phenomenally joyful to listen to.”

“We’re going back down memory lane”

“If you’re ready, come on go with me,” Staples sang to a standing crowd to start the morning and a stripped down, yet powerful set with songs spanning her 70-year career.

When the Staple Singers performed at UChicago in 1962, they were firmly a gospel group. Led by patriarch and bandleader, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the family group had gotten their start singing in churches across Chicago’s South Side. Many members of the congregation heard the sound of home.

In the late 1930s, Pops moved his young family from Mississippi to Chicago, like many other African Americans in search of opportunities and fleeing the terror of the Jim Crow South. He’d brought with him a deep gospel tradition, songs that had been passed down through generations and a vibrating blues guitar sound.

One of the group’s first major hits was a haunting rendition of the traditional gospel song “Uncloudy Day,” released in 1959.

“See, Pops had us singing old songs like that from way back,” Staples recalled in the conversation with former Chicago Tribune music critic Kot. “And when people would call us to perform for them, they were looking for some old people.”

According to Assoc. Prof. Adam Green’s tribute lecture, the family would perform close to 200 gigs a year, driving to lesser traveled, and dangerous, parts of the South actively resisting desegregation. Green’s own father, Ernest Green, was a member of the Little Rock Nine—the first Black students to attend Little Rock High School in 1957.

During her performance, Staples sang “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad),” which Pops Staples wrote the same night he saw the students turned away from the school by National Guardsman.

During her discussion with Kot, Staples recounted meeting Ernest Green and the rest of the Little Rock Nine. They’d been around the same age.

"To see those children walking with their books, their heads held high—and this big crowd is calling them names and spitting on them. They never did look down; they just kept on walking. That was a proud moment,” she said.

Staples also mentioned that the song had been one of Dr. King’s favorites. The Staple Singers would often play it at the beginning of King’s rallies, essentially becoming his opening act. “You gonna play my song tonight?” King would ask Pops.

According to Harris, her high school students enjoyed hearing about a different side of King. “They read about him in school, but I think they almost forget he was actually a real person; he had a personality,” said Harris. “Her stories took him off of the paper and made him more human, more relatable.

The Staple Singers first met King around 1963 when they attended one of his services in Montgomery. Pops was profoundly influenced by King’s message, and began writing songs that would become anthems of the movement—songs like “Freedom Highway” inspired by the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery.

“That March of 50,000 people was probably the single most important factor in terms of passing the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed federal government enforcement—for a time—of African Americans' equal right to franchise,” said Green, who teaches in the Departments of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity as well as History at UChicago.

Reflecting on her father’s hope that the group’s music “could save the world,” Staples said: “We can’t save it, but we helped,” Staples said. “I feel like I know that our music has done some good. It has changed some things.”

For decades, the Staple Singers, and Mavis as a solo artist, continued to make music that not only inspired people to take to the streets, but that also shaped the industry—collaborating with artists across genres from Bob Dylan to Prince to Hozier.

UChicago student Laura Mahaniah reflected on how Staples’ music spoke to someone from a generation grappling with many uncertainties.

“To have music with this spiritual root that has such faith in humanity, even as it's talking about the struggles of finding justice within humanity, I think that evokes a large emotional response for us,” said the fourth-year student studying Theater and Performance Studies. “And it also has a possibility of bringing about action.”

The soundtrack for changing the world

This fall, UChicago students will have the opportunity to learn more about Staples and the many figures and artists she has inspired in a new College course.

Co-taught by Kot and Titone, “The Soundtrack for Changing the World: Mavis Staples, Chicago, and the Music of the Civil Rights Movement,” will allow students to dig deeper into the story of the Staples family through a blend of history, musicology and journalism.

The course will be the first in a series that will explore the relationship between music and activism. “Music motivates people,” Kot said. “It gets them to do things that they may not otherwise feel they can do.”

For Kot, there is no better place to start than with Staples. Students will be joined by an array of guest speakers, including those who have worked and played with Staples—perhaps even the singer herself.

They will also have an opportunity to develop original research projects by digging through archives and conducting oral histories. Students can also apply for travel grants to support their research.

“The opportunity that we have at the University of Chicago is to bring together a legendary, iconic Chicago musician and renowned Chicago journalist to support an interdisciplinary course that invites students to understand what is remarkable about this city,” said Titone.

“Music wraps through these threads of civic discourse and activism and cultural movements. It's constantly adapting to what's happening in the world,” said Kot. “It's a beautiful thing.”

This event was co-presented by the Parrhesia Program for Public Discourse in the College, the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, the Rosenberger Award Committee, and the Chicago Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression.