INSIST! Juneteenth edition, 2024

Recently, while reading the fascinating oral history of ‘60s girl groups, ‘But Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’, I was quite taken by a brief chapter on The Shirelles concerning a monumental concert fundraiser in Alabama that has largely been forgotten. As the Summer heat bears down this Juneteenth, let’s take a look back at Salute to Freedom ’63 for this installment of Insist!Black and white advertisement for the Salute to Freedom event

Birmingham, Alabama, August 5th, 1963. In a city and time rife with tension and conflict, only two weeks from city segregation ordinances being repealed, and only months since the Birmingham Campaign for civil rights, the Salute to Freedom event was a major happening and endeavor. One of many events put on by national civil rights organizations as fundraisers for the upcoming March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Birmingham event was absurdly laden with talent and prominence. Martin Luther King, Jr (then head of SCLC) and James Baldwin were there, along with Joe Louis and Dick Gregory. And included on the musical slate, none other than Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Johnny Mathis, Clyde McPhatter, the Shirelles and Ella Fitzgerald (though it isn’t clear if she actually performed).

With an event of this stature, and with divisions in the area so stark, attendance and interest and scrutiny were sure to be high. Local press and authorities effectively ignored and stonewalled the event, while volunteers drummed up promotion and ticket sales. Initially planned for the large auditorium downtown, permission was denied at the last minute, forcing the event to be held five miles out of town on the football field at Miles College, on a makeshift stage. Only one major hotel would allow attendees as guests. Cab drivers refused service. Birmingham police wouldn’t work the show. Even still, the event was able to occur, on a 98 degree day, with upwards of 16,000 attending, many even walking miles with their own chairs.

Image from "March on Washington: Rare Photos of a Star-Studded Fundraiser, 1963" from life.comMartin Luther King Jr. (seated, at right) watched the Shirelles perform during the Salute to Freedom benefit concert in Birmingham, Ala., August 5, 1963. Credit: Grey Villet/Life Pictures/Shutterstock
Image from “March on Washington: Rare Photos of a Star-Studded Fundraiser, 1963” from

Salute to Freedom ‘63 ran late into the evening, and at one point during Johnny Mathis’s performance, the rickety stage partially gave way, injuring several people onstage. The show carried on but the difficulties were far from over. The performers, who were traveling together on a chartered plan from New York, were delayed several hours returning due to a bomb threat at the airport. National press barely covered the event, with the old gray lady only running four lines about it, primarily concerning the stage collapse. Though never published, there are thankfully a few terrific photos courtesy of LIFE magazine: March on Washington: Rare Photos of a Star-Studded Fundraiser, 1963.

Just over three weeks later, on August 28th, was the March on Washington. Then only a couple of weeks later, on September 15th, Ku Klux Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls. John Coltrane composed his stunning ‘Alabama’ in response to the bombing. We’ll conclude this Insist post with a live clip of the tune: