A new book by journalist Stuart Cosgrove uncovers the story of the historic Harlem Cultural Festival. He spoke to Alistair Farrow about its legacy today
Fifty years ago a huge cultural event took place in New York City. It saw hundreds of thousands of people flock to the Mount Morris Park in Harlem to listen to the soul stars of the day throughout July and August 1969.
Yet so few people know about the Harlem Cultural Festival, compared to Woodstock that took place at the same time.
A new book by Stuart Cosgrove, Harlem ’69—the Future of Soul, tells the story of this forgotten event. “It should really be up there as the number one top festival of all time,” he told Socialist Worker.
“History is often written by the mainstream and the mainstream wants to talk about events such as the Woodstock and Isle of Wight festivals.
“It wants to talk about musicians such as Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.
“That’s alright, but Nina Simone is one of the all-time greats. And in Harlem she did a festival which took place at the height of the Black Power movement, which was talking about revolutionary politics.”
The festival’s obscurity is no accident. A slew of reporters covered Woodstock, while just one TV producer, Harold Tulchin, filmed it on second hand cameras.
He remembers, “It was a peanuts operation, because no one really cares about black shows.”
The festival was the brainchild of Tony Lawrence, an employee of the parks and recreation department of New York City.
Mayor John Lindsay asked him to put on the event, having already seen a concert organised by him.
Lindsey wanted him to repeat it on a grander scale in the summer of 1969—an election year.
Lawrence obliged—but the febrile political atmosphere of the time did not leave the city’s festival untouched. “The atmosphere was very politicised,” explained Stuart.
“Harlem was a lightning rod for a hell of a lot of political moments and movements.
“This was less than two years after Martin Luther King was assassinated. The festival took place in an area of New York where Malcolm X had been assassinated five years previously.”
The first weekend of the festival was immediately after the Stonewall Riots that gave birth to the gay liberation movement.
And the revolutionary Black Panthers used the festival to organise and raise funds for their 21 members on trial at the time.
Nina Simone’s set was a call to arms.
Its crescendo was a reading of a poem by David Nelson of The Last Poets’ collective, which centred on Malcolm X’s phrase, “By any means necessary.”
Simone asked the crowd, “Are you ready, black people?
“Are you ready to do what is necessary?
“Are you ready to smash white things, to burn buildings, are you ready? Are you ready to build black things?”
The film remains hidden away in an archive, apart from some short clips on YouTube, and until it is released the full significance of the Harlem Cultural Festival will remain underplayed.
But Stuart’s book is an important antidote to the mainstream silence.