Sam Cooke’s “Rosa Parks Moment”

Sam Cooke turned the Rosa Parks story on its head, showing the power private property rights can wield against injustice.

There are a lot of reasons to watch Remastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke (available on Netflix), least of which is speculation about the circumstances of his death. The best reason to watch this documentary is the story of Cooke’s life, the story of a very different kind of civil rights leader of the 1950s and ‘60s. Cooke didn’t seek racial justice through political action; he pursued it through success in the business world.

“One of these days, the world is going to know Sam Cooke, and I’m going to help my people,” he said, as quoted in the film.

The Life of Sam Cooke

Cooke was born in Mississippi, but his father, Reverend Charles Cook, moved the family to Chicago early in Sam’s life. Rev. Cook started a church in the Bronzeville section of Chicago, which at the time was home to hundreds of small businesses owned by African-Americans.

Bronzeville was a beautiful place. In that corridor from 43rd and State Street to 51st Street, there must have been two to three hundred black businesses that were vibrant—segregated, of course, all black. It was like a black Wall Street,

said Spencer Leak, himself a black business owner whose family’s funeral home held the first funeral service for Cooke (there was a second funeral in Los Angeles).

So, Sam Cooke grew up in a neighborhood teeming with black entrepreneurs, looking up to a father who himself had made his own way in a world that didn’t exactly set the table for him. As Cooke himself put it:

My great-grandmother was a slave in Mississippi. She had no education. Neither did my father. He was a self-made man. But he saw the disadvantages to the Negro child in the South. So, he went north to Chicago. In many ways, I’m very like my father. He has this intense drive that I’ve got.

Cooke never lost that drive, becoming lead singer of the famous gospel group, The Soul Stirrers, while still a teenager and eventually making the switch to rock-and-roll. Cooke was an early pioneer in rock music who performed and recorded his own compositions, like contemporaries Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. But along with his ambition to realize his own dreams, he never forgot his other dream of helping his fellow black Americans by becoming wealthy and influential.

Cooke's Trouble in the South

Once he was an established star, it would have been easy for him to confine touring to huge markets in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc., but he kept returning to the South, where he could confront racial injustice directly. “There were places in the South where we couldn’t even stay in the hotels,” says Smokey Robinson in an interview for the documentary. “We had to stay in rooming houses.”

It got worse than that. Quincy Jones recounts black performers being forced to sleep in mortuaries, “with six bodies there, us sleeping on a cot, and six bodies in caskets.”

It was inevitable that Cooke himself would bump heads with Jim Crow by touring the southeast. And so, when Dick Clark booked him to do a live show in Atlanta, Clark received threats from the KKK, which had recently bombed a Jewish synagogue. Clark thought about canceling the show, eventually calling in the National Guard to provide security. Little did he know, says Renee Graham of The Boston Globe, that the National Guard probably couldn’t be trusted, either.

Cooke turned the Rosa Parks story on its head, showing the power private property rights can wield against injustice.

Nevertheless, Cooke courageously went on and performed. He wasn’t merely facing arrest for standing up to injustice, as Rosa Parks or Muhammad Ali later would. He was facing death from a self-described “terror organization” that hadn’t hesitated to kill before.

Cooke did have his own “Rosa Parks moment” on a bus in South Carolina. Dionne Warwick was on her first tour with Cooke when the tour bus stopped at a restaurant for lunch. Warwick recalls how the black performers sat down, and the restaurant staff immediately asked them to stand up again. When asked if the restaurant would take their orders, a waitress replied, “Shut up and wait until I get to you.” Warwick responded that they could “take that order and shove it,” and the troupe returned to the bus.

In the world most Americans know today, that would have been the end of the story. But not in 1960s South Carolina. Two policemen pulled the bus over and demanded to know who the “gals” were who had been rude to the restaurant waitress. According to Warwick, Cooke replied,

First of all, we don’t have ‘gals’ on our bus. We have ladies and gentlemen. And this happens to be my bus. It’s private property. And I’m going to ask you kindly to step off of it.

Boom.

Private Property and Justice

Sam Cooke turned the Rosa Parks story on its head, showing the power private property rights can wield against injustice. Parks was arrested by police and removed from a city bus for defying a bad law. Cooke owned the bus and kicked the cops off it, demonstrating the completely opposite power relationship that exists on private property. Taking nothing away from Parks’s iconic gesture, there is something more satisfying about Cooke’s bus story for anyone who believes in free enterprise.

Cooke continued throughout his career to use the voluntary exchanges of the market to pursue racial justice. When he learned black attendees were relegated to a segregated balcony at a 1961 concert at Memphis City Auditorium, Cooke refused to play. He organized a boycott among the rest of the entertainers, who later gave in and performed, although Cooke did not. He remained behind in his motel, the Lorraine, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered seven years later.

Cooke wasn’t satisfied with merely being a recording star. At a time when black recording artists were routinely underpaid royalties on their recordings, Cooke hired the now-infamous accountant Allen Klein to audit RCA/Victor, resulting in huge back payments. He eventually became partners with Klein and J.W. Alexander to start his own publishing and record companies, the latter concentrating on recording black performers. In these efforts, too, Cooke talked like an entrepreneur rather than a politician, and he likely did far more good for black Americans than virtually any politician then or since.

I am aware that owning a record company is a losing deal much too often for comfort. But this company of mine is concentrating on recording Negro artists I feel have the ingredients to become as successful as I have. And if I lose a few dollars along the way, it will be worth it to me. Morally, it’s a worthwhile project.

African-American entrepreneurship has been part of American life since its earliest days, even before slavery was abolished. Sam Cooke was a part of that tradition, which continues to this day. With The New York Times peddling the myth that capitalism is inherently related to slavery and racism, Americans should hear more about how the colorblind free market provided African-Americans like Sam Cooke an opportunity to fight and overcome racial injustice even when racist government edicts stacked the deck against them.