In March 1968, Washington Post reporter Ivan Brandon got a tip: Howard University students were about to occupy the school’s Administration Building. If he got there fast, he could report the story from inside its corridors.
Roughly 1,200 students filled the building, and about 2,500 rallied outside. The protesters had four demands: more courses on African-American history and culture; disciplinary charges dropped against a group who had disrupted the school’s Charter Day; the establishment of a judicial process; and the resignation of university president James Nabrit. When the negotiations dragged and students’ morale flagged, protesters turned on a song, Keep on Pushing.
I’ve got to keep on pushing (mmm-hmm), I can’t stop now.
Move up a little higher, Some way, somehow.
After winning on two of the four demands, the protesters declared victory.
“When the negotiations were finally over and the kids were cleaning up the building, they were blasting We’re a Winner,” Brandon says.
We’re a winner, and never let anybody say,
Boy, you can’t make it, ’cause a feeble mind is in your way.
Both songs were written by Curtis Mayfield, who began as a gospel singer as a youngster in Chicago and grew to become one of the country’s most successful R&B producers, composers and performers.
Mayfield launched his professional career in 1958, as a 16-year-old background singer for The Roosters. The five-member group would become The Impressions, known for silky love songs and fronted by vocalist Jerry Butler. When Butler left the group after its first big hit, For Your Precious Love, the group continued as a trio. In 1961, they had their own big hit, Gypsy Woman. From then on, Mayfield was the group’s chief songwriter. He left The Impressions for a solo career in 1970.
Mayfield died in 1999. He had been paralyzed from the neck down for about a decade after lighting equipment fell on him at a concert in Brooklyn, but he continued to compose and sing.
His successes are legendary. The Impressions’ version of Amen was featured in the Lilies of the Field, the movie that won Sidney Poitier an Oscar in 1964. In 1970, he wrote the soundtrack for Super Fly, another cultural milestone. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame both as a member of The Impressions and as a solo artist. Shortly before his death, he learned he’d be inducted into BMI’s Songwriter Hall of Fame.
It was We’re a Winner, with its unapologetic celebration of African-American achievement and culture, that cemented Mayfield’s status as the musical spokesman for the younger wing of the civil rights movement.
The song wasn’t a one-off. Mayfield had been weaving messages of black empowerment into his songs for years. But We’re a Winner differed from the subtle messages of earlier hits like the love song I’m So Proud of You or the quasi-gospel tone of People Get Ready. In We’re a Winner, Mayfield openly celebrates black pride and accomplishment with lines like “We’re living proof to all alert, That we’re two from the good black earth.”
“He felt like he was contributing. He would see and hear people singing his songs while protesting. He was keenly aware of that.”
The song was released in late 1967. By the time of the Howard University protests, it was No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart and No. 14 on the pop chart. Nevertheless, its lyrics got the song banned on several radio stations, including pop powerhouse WLS in Mayfield’s hometown of Chicago.
“I think the reaction to the song was shock; Curtis had been such a voice for harmony and reconciliation,” says Craig Werner, an Afro-American studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield and the Rise and Fall of American Soul.
“I think that a lot of ... white listeners were taken aback by what they felt was an aggressive tone. “
The original lyrics were even more blunt. In the 2008 documentary Movin’ On Up, Impressions member Sam Gooden said Mayfield had written lyrics like “The black boy done dried his eyes” and “There’ll be no more Uncle Tom, at least that blessed day has come.” But he softened the lyrics at the urging of musical arranger Johnny Pate.
Mayfield’s son Todd says his father wasn’t “overtly political.”
“He didn’t participate in marches and things like that… I never knew him to vote,” says Todd Mayfield, whose biography of father, A Traveling Soul, was published in 2016.
But, he adds, his father was awake to events around him. “He felt like he was contributing. He would see and hear people singing his songs while protesting. He was keenly aware of that. “
By the time Curtis Mayfield wrote We’re A Winner, he’d heard chants of “Black Power” drown out choruses of We Shall Overcome. He saw the failure of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1966 fair housing campaign in Chicago. He listened as musical peers like Aretha Franklin and James Brown became more outspoken, Werner says, and “breathed it in.”
Those influences showed up both lyrically and musically.
Mayfield didn’t have a formal music education, so he worked closely with Pate when it came to arrangements. The luscious strings found in most of The Impressions’ songs never left. Toward the end of the ’60s, though, Mayfield’s songs lost some of the softness found in the earlier hits and took on a rhythmic, funkier edge, Werner says.
“That’s the big message of ’68. Compared to James Brown, (Mayfield) may have sounded a little soft, “ Werner says. “But if you compare those songs to Keep on Pushing, or Woman’s Got Soul, you have a heavier emphasis on the rhythm.”
Werner is convinced that if Mayfield were still alive he would be a bridge between communities that are profoundly divided. He definitely would have responded to the political and social winds now buffeting the country.
“He understood the realities of police brutality, especially growing up in Chicago,” Werner says. “ He’d be a strong supporter of BLM (Black Lives Matter) and Colin Kaepernick. But he’d also be reaching out and doing his best to connect with folks who didn’t get it to begin with.”