One of the more stirring and heartfelt songs from the civil rights era is When Will We Be Paid, by the Chicago soul and gospel group The Staple Singers.
In plainspoken but soulful terms Mavis Staples unpacks the backbone of American prosperity: black slave labor.
We worked this country
From shore to shore
Our women cooked all your food
And washed all your clothes
We picked cotton and laid the railroad steel
Worked our hands down to the bone at your lumber mill
The Staples released the song in 1970 on We’ll Get Over, their second album on the Stax label. The great performance of the song above comes from the film Soul to Soul, which documents a 1971 concert in Ghana, featuring mostly American R&B, soul and jazz performers.
The song itself was inspired by a passage in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream Speech, given at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which took place 50 years ago this month.
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence they were signing a promissory note … a promise that all men, yes black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”
Despite those credentials, and the Staples’ role in the civil rights movement, When Will We Be Paid is not recalled alongside some of the other great anthems of the era, like We Shall Overcome, Go Tell it on the Mountain, and People Get Ready. And neither the song nor the album were a hit for the Staples.
I wonder if that’s in part because the song can be read as an argument for what’s proven a controversial topic: reparations. That idea has been around since the end of the Civil War, that direct descendants of slaves, either individually or as a group, deserve some kind of monetary compensation for the wrongs suffered by their ancestors.
Of course the meaning of When Will We Be Paid is also much broader. Following Dr. King’s logic, the “bad check” is a metaphor for the failure to achieve full equality for blacks in America. And the Staples double down on notion by invoking “women’s work,” arguing that equality will only be paid in full if it also extends to black women.
But the litany of abuses in the lyrics, the claim that “Anytime we ask for pay or a loan/That’s when everything seems to turn out wrong,” the repeated refrain of “When will we get paid/For the work we’ve done” suggests the song speaks not just of the political but the economic forms of redress required to make the check good.
If the Staples did have reparations in mind, they’d be in good company, at least when it comes to Chicago and Illinois. Many of the more recent arguments for reparations have come from here, made by activists like N’COBRA and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and by politicians like Dorothy Tillman, Jan Schakowsky, Bobby Rush and Danny Davis. Reparations even came up as a topic for debate in Chicago’s last Mayoral election.
Davis was part of a Congressional group charged with studying the idea of reparations in 2001. He thinks there is something unique about Chicago’s position on reparations.
“Chicago sent the very first African American to become a member of Congress after the period of Reconstruction,” said Davis. “Illinois has been the state that has elected two [African American] United State Senators. So Chicago has had a level of progression related to issue raising that many other places in the country have not experienced.”
Though his own group came to naught in terms of serious discussion or recommendations, and never gained broader support from Congress, Davis doesn’t think the issue has gone away.
“I don’t think anyone can deny that slavery has had an adverse effect on many of its descendants,” Davis said. “People whose relatives or foreparents were enslaved are still feeling the impact and are still being disadvantaged as a result.”
But that is exactly what’s proven so controversial about reparations: is payment required to repair that damage? And if so, how much, to whom, and why African Americans, and not other disadvantaged groups?
Davis thinks reparations don’t have to mean paying people outright. He has in mind special incentives like education and training to lift people out of poverty, all of which he thinks can “in a sense be called reparations.” But reaching consensus on what those would look like has proven no less complex.
As for The Staple Singers, Davis say’s he is a great fan of the group and has been since seeing them as a child in Crossett, Arkansas. To him, the song evokes a key claim for blacks, one that has yet to be fully answered.
“The notion of when will we be paid, or when will we really reach the point when there is full citizenship, with no barriers, no prohibitions, with nothing that holds us back and reminds us of this previous condition of servitude, when will that happen — if it will?”