The History Behind Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up”

There’s a line “do not obey” within the famous Curtis Mayfield song “Move On Up”.

Take nothing less than the supreme best
Do not obey for most people say
’cause you can past the test
So what we have to do is
move on up and keep on wishing
Remember your dream is your only scheme
so keep on pushing

What might “do not obey” refer to?

To start, let’s look all the way back at Woodrow Wilson’s racist “America First” campaign of 1916, which manifested in years of organized white mobs committing widespread violence and terrorizing black neighborhoods.

Historians, for example, might point to the NYC 1917 Silent Parade meant to protest that in America “black skin was death warrant”, or the Chicago 1919 massacre that was part of a “Red Summer” of white supremacist terrorist acts.

This frightful condition continued such that by 1921 all of Tulsa’s black neighborhoods and “Wall Street” were burned to the ground, pushing black families into mass graves, and building a KKK convention hall on top of the ruins…and all of this still is rarely if ever taught in schools.

Blocked from upward mobility by violent white supremacist mobs, with police offering no help, community protection groups emerged along ethnic lines. In other words, “gangs” were started as a way to enable peace enough to prosper, by defending American communities against organized white supremacist domestic terrorism.

Although some black gangs likely formed to counter the aggressive white youth, the unorganized black youth were no match for the well-organized, all-white gangs that were centered in their athletic clubs.

Wherever white oppression tactics were found, and police failed in their duties, a gang was likely formed to defend against injustices and thus enable a degree of protection to help enable gains in health, wealth and prosperity.

Catholic (Polish, Irish, German, Italian), Chinese, Jewish and black gangs were established. These gangs depended on fund-raising and community support events.

A story from Milwaukee, for example, comes from a fund-raising event on a huge boat in Lake Michigan. A violent storm caused a collision that sank the boat, decimating that community by drowning leaders of the “Irish Union Guard” abolitionist militia. So many leaders of that community died it has been said a balance of city political power abruptly shifted towards a German militia.

Another story, this time from Minneapolis, is how Jewish gangsters violently attacked any German “Silver Shirt” militia (Nazi) rally, calling it a “patriotic duty as Americans” to shut-down pro-Hitler influence operations.

Berman learned that Silver Shirts were mounting a rally at a nearby Elks’ Lodge. When the Nazi leader called for all the “Jew bastards” in the city to be expelled, or worse, Berman and his associates burst in to the room and started cracking heads. After ten minutes, they had emptied the hall. His suit covered in blood, Berman took the microphone and announced, “This is a warning. Anybody who says anything against Jews gets the same treatment. Only next time it will be worse.” After Berman broke up two more rallies, there were no more public Silver Shirt meetings in Minneapolis.

Totally defeated on the streets the Silver Shirt members then became the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) to gain an unfair advantage over their targets, but that’s a blog post for another day.

Gangs typically dissipated as they become assimilated by mainstream opportunities (upward mobility) in America (even a catholic president was elected). However America has such high levels of continued oppression of blacks (1950s White House urban renewal was encoded race warfare) it is no wonder black gangs have lingered.

See the film “Rubble Kings” for an excellent look at the socio-economics of how and why New York gangs were formed in the 1960s and what helped them dissipate in the Bronx. Hint: upward mobility through opportunities in music and art, the foundations of today’s rap and hip-hop markets.

With that in mind, let’s look at what Mayfield may have been writing about in his lyrics. The year was 1970 when he released his debut album Curtis, and also when one of the Chicago gangs (Blackstone Rangers) tried to pressure Mayfield to fund them.

He did not obey. Instead he offered them a concert and used his platform to drive a “move on up” message.

He was pushing hope for equality and justice of assimilation that other the races in America were allowed to achieve, leaving behind the need for paying for gang protection from the systemic violence of white power groups.

The Atlantic has described the situation as “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.”

To make an even finer point on the social power of this song, by 1975 a popular TV show about black “nouveau-riche” prosperity in America, called The Jeffersons, created a theme song called “Movin’ On Up“.

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