Why the Law Needs Music: Revisiting NAACP V. Button through the Songs of Bob Dylan

By Knake, Renee Newman | Fordham Urban Law Journal, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Why the Law Needs Music: Revisiting NAACP V. Button through the Songs of Bob Dylan


Knake, Renee Newman, Fordham Urban Law Journal


Introduction
 I. NAA CP v. Button
II. On Music History and the Law
III. Revisiting NAA CP v. Button Through the Songs of Bob
     Dylan, or Why the Law Needs Music History
     A. Music's Influence in Advancing Law: Blowin 'in the
        Wind
     B. Critiquing and Redeeming the Law: Only a Pawn in
        Their Game and The Lonesome Death of Hattie
        Carroll
     C. On the Importance of Exercising First Amendment
        Rights: Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues
Conclusion

INTRODUCTION

The law needs music, (1) a truth revealed by revisiting the United States Supreme Court's opinion in NAACP v. Button (2) through the songs of Bob Dylan and the play Music History. (3) The Court decided Button in 1963, (4) just a few months before the debut of Dylan's acclaimed album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. (5) In Button, the Court held that the First Amendment protected the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's ("NAACP") legal assistance to individuals for the enforcement of constitutional and civil rights. The decision was a victory for the NAACP, yet success in the courtroom did not translate entirely to success on the ground. Indeed, in the same year, NAACP Mississippi Field Secretary Medgar Evers was assassinated, (6) and the Birmingham Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed. (7) These events serve as reminders of law's inadequacies, in that the constitutional protection of legal services in Button did little to stop the needless loss of life and violence that was characteristic of racial desegregation efforts. Not only did tragedy persist, but the NAACP's long-term vision for racial equality has never been completely realized. Playwright Sandra Seaton focuses on the law's inadequacies in her drama Music History, also set in the turbulence of 1963. Her characters endure the law's failings firsthand when a University of Illinois student, Walter, the beloved of Etta, is killed during his work on the voter rights campaign in Mississippi.

Music of the 1960s captured the struggle inherent in attempts to achieve equality when the law proved impotent, particularly as evidenced by Bob Dylan's work in 1963. This Essay, written for the Fordham University School of Law Bob Dylan and the Law Symposium, offers three connections between the law and music using the work of Dylan as an illustration. First, Dylan's music criticizes the existing cultural and legal regime in a manner that empowers social change in the wake of the law's failure (though, admittedly, Dylan may not have intended such a result). Second, while both the legal opinion and the songs memorialized the history of the civil rights era, the music is unique in its continued influence on modern culture. Third, Button and Dylan remind us about the importance of exercising our free speech rights, whether the speech involves offering legal assistance to minorities shut out from the political process at the ballot box, or singing a song silenced by record and television network executives.

In short, Dylan shows us why the law needs music.

This Essay proceeds in three parts. Part I opens with a summary of the Court's decision in NAACP v. Button, focusing particularly on the expanded understanding of First Amendment rights related to access to the law that flow from this legal opinion. Part II explains the inspiration for this Essay, Seaton's play Music History, which reveals the influence of music on law and culture during the civil rights movement. Part III examines the intersections between Music History, the Button case, and Dylan's songs of 1963 to demonstrate the importance of music to the law.

I. NAACP v. BUTTON

NAA CP v. Button, a seminal case in the civil rights movement, established that the NAACP's assistance to individuals in the enforcement of constitutional and civil rights is protected by the First Amendment. (8) The case was one of many brought by a NAACP lawyer, Robert Carter, in an effort to end segregation. …

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