On the afternoon of June 29, 1969, a crowd consisting mostly of Black people from the nearby area packs Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). Over the course of this afternoon and the next five Sunday afternoons, Black performers from many different genres and eras appear on the park’s brightly-colored, sunlit stage in a dazzling series of shows known as the Harlem Cultural Festival. The festival will draw a total of over 300,000 people.
Tony Lawrence, the eccentric lounge singer, concert promoter, and youth director of a local church, was chosen to organize and emcee the Harlem Cultural Festival by the New York Parks Department. The festival began in 1967 and drew big crowds in its first two years, convincing Lawrence to make the 1969 edition the biggest yet. In the wake of 1968, when the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (and subsequent assassination of Robert Kennedy) had led to massive unrest in Harlem, the administration of Mayor John Lindsay felt compelled to offer cultural programing to the city’s Black residents, perhaps in an effort to keep the peace. Despite the city’s support and the sponsorship of Maxwell House coffee, the budget was tight: without enough money to pay for proper lighting, organizers situated the stage facing West to take advantage of sunlight. A steep cliff opposite the stage would serve as a makeshift grandstand as more and more people crowded into the park. The Black Panthers provided security for the concert series, some appearing in the crowd in uniform, some undercover, and some perched in the trees.
The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured some of the most popular acts in the United States. Sly and the Family Stone’s set included “Everyday People,” a number-one hit at the time, and Gladys Knight and the Pips performed “Heard it Through the Grapevine” which had recently reached No. 2 on the charts. The acts were eclectic, showcasing talented Black artists from across a spectrum of genres. Jazz icon B.B. King, a young Stevie Wonder, Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, psychedelic-influenced acts like the 5th Dimension, and legendary comedienne Moms Mabley were just a few of the acts that took the stage over the course of six Sundays. Critics have long pointed to the festival as a crucial point in American musical history, a coming-together of the sounds that were defining Black music at the time and would set the tone for American popular music for the next decade.
It was also an important moment for Harlem’s Black community, a chance to collectively mourn Dr. King and others lost in recent years while also celebrating Black pride and Black power. Nina Simone performed her yet-to-be-released “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” an uplifting message to Black youths, and closed her set by reciting a poem that asked the audience, “Are you ready to smash white things? …to build Black things? …Are you ready to kill if necessary?” That same day, when the show was interrupted by the announcement that American astronauts had landed on the moon, the crowd booed the news — “Cash they wasted, as far as I’m concerned, in getting to the moon, could’ve been used to feed poor Black people in Harlem” one attendee told the evening news.
In one particularly meaningful moment, the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, whose grandparents were enslaved, signaled to a young Mavis Staples to join her in a duet. The pair sang a raw, moving rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” MLK’s favorite song. Before the performance, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with King when he was shot, told the audience that MLK had mentioned it immediately before his death, and that King had “died asking the Lord to lead his hand, to help him lead us.”
The Harlem Cultural Festival was an unqualified success, but it would not return in 1970 and the footage languished in obscurity. Lawrence had hoped to tour the country with a similar show, and to put on another the following year, but neither idea came to fruition. He eventually began to accuse white investors and even the mafia of scuttling his efforts. As some Black observers correctly predicted, the festival was immediately overshadowed in America’s collective memory by Woodstock, which took place between August 15 and 18 in upstate New York. Although attempts to turn footage from the festival into a “Black Woodstock” film began as soon as the concert series ended, it would not be until the 2021 release of Questlove’s documentary, Summer of Soul, that footage of the Harlem Music Festival became easily accessible to the public.