On May 15, 1969, Renaldo “Obie” Benson, a member of the Four Tops, arrived with the tour bus in Berkley, California and witnessed a group of anti-war activists protesting against the Vietnam War. He was shocked by the amount of police brutality and violence against the protesters. That day, was later referred to as “Bloody Thursday”. It was that troubling scene that triggered Benson to ask questions, including why is this happening, what’s going on here?
Returning to Detroit, Benson shared his observations of the police brutality with Al Cleveland, a songwriter for Motown records. Cleveland wrote and composed a song based on these conversations, and later, Benson pitched the song to the other Four Tops. The group did not want to have anything to do with it, labeling it a “protest” song. Benson later shared the song with Marvin Gaye and convinced him to record it. Gaye agreed on the conditions he could write additional lyrics and different music. Benson agreed, and on January 21, 1971, Marvin Gaye’s single, What’s Going On was released. It has become perhaps the most famous protest song ever. I was twenty years old and I remember hearing it for the first time like it was yesterday but I only learned the history of the song a few years ago.
The beautiful and powerful lyrics of this song were focused on the protests against the Vietnam War but are so appropriate today as we consider the injustices to the black people within our country. Here’s a few lines:
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, eh eh
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, oh oh oh
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Ah, what’s going on
In this country, the black community is suffering from inequality not only from the police and the judicial system, but also inequality in wealth, income, unemployment, poverty, health care, education, and coronavirus. A CNN story from June 6 captured the degrees of inequity in six charts. For example, the median net worth of white households is 10 times greater than black households ($171,000 vs. $17,600). The median income for black households is a little less than 60% of that of white households ($41,000 vs. $71,000). The poverty rate for black Americans is more than double that of whites (20.8% vs. 8.1%). And blacks comprise 23% of all coronavirus deaths even though they are only 13% of the population. Blacks will likely be disproportionately affected by climate change. What’s Going On?
The social unrest and the scope of movement we are now witnessing, the spark ignited by the murder of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, is as significant as I have ever seen. Even greater than I remember from the Vietnam War protests. And while I do not know how this movement for black equality will evolve and what changes in our society we will see, I am hopeful that we are witnessing the beginning of real relief to the current injustices to blacks that exist throughout our country. Only as more and more people realize What’s Going On can hearts be changed, and only then can there be justice and equality.
What’s Going On? Maybe we’re seeing the beginning of what Sam Cooke said so well in 1964: A Change Is Gonna Come:
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will…