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Why the Law Needs Music: Revisiting NAACP v. Button Through the Songs of Bob Dylan


Renee Newman Knake


Michigan State University - College of Law

November 28, 2011

Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. XXXVIII, 2011
MSU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-24

Abstract:     
The law needs music, a truth revealed by revisiting the United States Supreme Court’s opinion in NAACP v. Button through the songs of Bob Dylan and Sandra Seaton’s play Music History. The Court decided Button in 1963, just a few months before the debut of Dylan’s acclaimed album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In Button, the Court held that the First Amendment protected the NAACP’s 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, and the Birmingham Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed. 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 works of Dylan and Seaton as illustrations. First, music criticizes the existing cultural and legal regime in a manner that empowers social change in the wake of the law’s failure. Second, while the Button legal opinion memorialized the history of the civil rights era, music (and Seaton’s Music History) continue to influence modern culture in a more pervasive way. Third, Button, Dylan, and Seaton 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, singing a song silenced by record and television network executives, or recreating history through drama. In short, we see why the law needs Bob Dylan and Music History.

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Date posted: November 28, 2011 ; Last revised: January 4, 2012

Suggested Citation

Knake, Renee Newman, Why the Law Needs Music: Revisiting NAACP v. Button Through the Songs of Bob Dylan (November 28, 2011). Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. XXXVIII, 2011; MSU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-24. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1965501 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1965501

Contact Information

Renee Newman Knake (Contact Author)
Michigan State University - College of Law ( email )
318 Law College Building
East Lansing, MI 48824-1300
United States
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