West of Philadelphia and surrounded by rural towns, Lincoln University, the prestigious black college founded by the Quakers in 1854, was engulfed in the tumult of the 1960s. Because it was halfway between New York and Washington, DC, Lincoln attracted many prominent stars of the era. Muhammad Ali, a legend among college students for his refusal to go to Vietnam, was escorted around campus. The leaders of Deacons for Defense and Justice, a black self-defense group started in Alabama, and black arts leaders such as Amiri Baraka visited and talked to students.
The creative ferment at Lincoln, and the young black students from around the country attracted to that energy, were responsible for the Gil Scott-Heron who moved millions with the messages in his music and helped influence generations of musicians. Most of Gil’s early band members, including collaborator and cowriter Brian Jackson, attended Lincoln, where they found each other, formed groups, and made music. Lincoln was somewhat insulated from the anger and rage exploding on urban campuses, allowing students to absorb the changes convulsing the country without being overwhelmed by them and to respond to it in their own ways.
In September 1969, the school was on the verge of revolt. As a rural school, too far away from urban unrest, Lincoln didn’t experience the explosive rage blowing up on other black campuses such as Howard University or Morgan State. But there was plenty of anger directed at the conservative school administration, which looked down on political demonstrations and some of the free-form creativity taking place on campus. The school had started admitting female students only the year before, and some of the older students and faculty were still resentful at the changes taking place on campus. But Gil and his friends kept pushing for even more change.
Among them was Carl Cornwell, a student who occasionally jammed with the Black and Blues and who had his own band, a jazz quintet that played a lot of contemporary music by Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. Called the Harrison Cornwell Limited after Cornwell and trumpeter Joe Harrison, the group had originally included Brian Jackson, until Gil snatched him away to play with the Black and Blues. Cornwell, whose father taught at Lincoln, grew up in town and was imbued with the school’s pride and heri- tage. But once he became a student, he saw firsthand that the college was lacking essential services and wasn’t responsive enough to the needs of students.
At midnight one Friday in November 1969, at the end of a rehearsal, Cornwell’s group was packing up their instruments when drummer Ron Colbert started having an asthma attack and his inhaler wasn’t helping him catch a breath. The group walked to the school infirmary but it was closed. So they took Ron back to his room. By the time the ambulance arrived, it was too late. “He died in my arms,” remembers Cornwell. “I’ll never forget it.” The tragedy could have been avoided if the infirmary had been staffed and open around the clock. Colbert’s death brought to a head some issues that had been simmering for years: Gil’s neighbor in his freshman dorm had died of an aneurism that had gone untreated after being detected, and several students had had their medical problems misdiagnosed by the cam- pus doctor. When Gil returned on Sunday night from a weekend in New York City, he quickly found out about Ron’s death and decided to take ac- tion, demanding adequate medical facilities. The student body united around the demands, especially after the administration started to claim that Colbert may have been getting high, though there was no evidence that the young man used drugs.
Gil made up a list of seven demands, including a 24/7 infirmary, the purchase of a fully equipped ambulance, and the firing of the on-campus physician, Dr. Davies. The next morning, the student body boycotted classes, and hundreds of them met in the school chapel, where Gil spoke, explain- ing the need for the changes. The protest grew angry, culminating with some students hanging the doctor in effigy from a tree in his front yard and setting it on fire. The doctor came out of his house and swore that he wasn’t responsible for the deaths. As he proclaimed his innocence, he had tears in his eyes. When Gil arrived at the protest, he stood between the students and the doctor, looking at the doctor’s children staring out the window in fear. “A cold flash scampered across the back of my neck,” wrote Gil later to de- scribe his sudden fear that events could spiral out of control into violence, a fear which was allayed only when the students went back to their dorms. The realization that radical action sometimes leads to unintended conse- quences and violent overreactions haunted Gil, and that image of a dis- traught Dr. Davis lingered in his mind for months to come. The experience reinforced Gil’s instinct to avoid violence and militant action in the struggle for social change.
Though the school agreed to most of the demands, fully stocking the infirmary and buying a brand-new ambulance, the students continued their boycott into a seventh day. At one point, Gil claimed that a young administrator at the school threatened to kick him out if he didn’t stop the boycott. Gil was sitting in the basement of the student union, trying to take it all in, when he was informed that a young doctor who had applied for the job opening would take the position only with Gil’s approval. He liked her, she took the job, and Gil decided to end the boycott.
Not that things calmed down on campus. The next battle involved student demands for a black president to replace Dr. Marvin Wachman, the longtime white president of the school. “He wasn’t the right color and he wasn’t doing the right things for Lincoln,” said Cornwell. “There was a real emphasis on black power, and the student body really wanted a black man running the school.” Students marched and circulated petitions to pressure the trustees to find a new president. They did get their black president: Herman Branson, the scion of a prominent black family in Philadelphia, came in as president in 1970, but the conservative-minded Branson didn’t approve of the school’s rampant activism.
At the turn of the decade, two tragic national events took place that served to define the 1960s. During a peace rally on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio, the National Guard shot and killed four students. The moment was captured forever in a photograph of a student crying for help over a dead student’s body. And on May 15, 1970, two black students at Jackson State University were shot and killed by members of the Mississippi State Highway Patrol, who fired through the students’ dormitory windows. Outraged at the muted reaction by U.S. attorney general John Mitchell, Gil wanted to shut down all campus activities to protest the shooting. He saw how the violence at Jackson State impacted him and his friends at Lincoln—if it had happened there, it could happen on their campus. And if they didn’t protest the killings, their silence would only embolden reactionary forces that sought to quell student unrest by any means necessary.
The whole campus was riled up that day, and some students shouted, “Let’s march on Oxford!” That was the sleepy town just down the highway, where blacks had recently been refused accommodation at a hotel. Gil was outraged about the killings, but he feared that a march on Oxford could provoke a violent reaction and considered calling up officials in Oxford to reassure them that the approaching marchers were peaceful and were “not a realization of the fear that many of them had always held in their most secret places, like a town with a penitentiary on its outskirts.” He never made the call, but he was worried about the potential for violence.
“Hundreds of students were all lined up, ready to march down Route One,” remembers David Barnes. “We were getting ready to march into Oxford, an all-white town, which was really dumb. Somehow word spread, and we saw trucks drive by with shotguns and rifles in the back. We had no weapons for the revolution. And some of us wised up. Cooler heads pre- vailed. Gil told everyone to calm down. We weren’t ready for that type of revolution.” Rather, students headed back to their rooms and later held a vigil in the chapel.
Not that the calm would last. In some of the rural towns surrounding Lincoln, there were small units of the Ku Klux Klan. Just a few years ear- lier, the Klan burned a thirty-foot cross one night near the college campus. Concern grew that the local Klan might take revenge on students for the riots in Philadelphia. So, Gil and some buddies decided to form an impromptu defense squad and went “out prowling in the fields with rifles,” remembers Cornwell. At one point, Gil sat with a rifle and a bandolier about 100 yards from the spot of cross burnings in 1962 and 1966, determined to confront Klansmen if they attempted it again. When it started to rain, he linked up with Brian and two fellow students, stashed a few rifles in the trunk of the Rambler and headed out on the highway, one of them clutch- ing a machete. They were headed to a gas station to get some coal oil to make Molotov cocktails. Just four miles north of campus, going sixty miles an hour, one of the tires blew out and the convertible screeched across the four lanes, smashed through a chain-link fence, and hit the corner wall of an insurance company office.
Gil flew out of the car and hit the pavement, leaving a gash on the side of his head, but he was conscious—“the driver’s side door handle was still in his outstretched left hand, though the car was now some twenty feet away”—and the other three also survived the accident. They quickly grabbed the rifles and shells out of the trunk and hid them across the highway. When a state trooper stopped to help them, he didn’t suspect anything and gave them a ride back to campus. Battered and bruised, Gil and his friends recovered from their injuries, drank a few beers, and plotted their next move.
Later that year, campus unrest boiled over and students took over the administration building to demand a variety of changes, everything from overhauling the curriculum to male students who wanted the right to stay in women’s dorms overnight with their girlfriends. Some administrators were alarmed by the intensity of activism on campus and cooperated with law enforcement agencies, who were investigating radical students at colleges around the country. And Lincoln was rocked by scandal the next year, when it was reported that a Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI had broken into the FBI’s offices in a nearby town and found records indicating that Lincoln’s vice president for student affairs was an informer for the Bureau. It was not surprising that the Bureau had targeted Lincoln, which was a hotbed of student activism and was home to political refugees from around the world, including South Africa and Zimbabwe. Most of them were older, and some had been involved in revolutionary activities in their homelands—one student even had pictures of himself posing with Mao Zedong and Che Guevara.
The Bureau, which kept tabs on student activists and militant organi- zations through the controversial COINTELPRO program, targeted some members of the Black and Blues. When Ade returned to his home in the Bronx to recuperate from an illness, his mother was called by the FBI. The Bureau informed her that Ade’s name was on a list of surveillance targets. As far as his friends knew, Gil was not targeted and never mentioned being targeted by the Bureau. After his death, the FBI claimed that it did not have a file on him in its records.
Gil later wrote a poem that captured his rage over his college’s role in helping the FBI conduct surveillance on its own students:
But something else was happening and students weren’t supposed
Lincoln’s state relationship included COIN-TEL-PRO.
As now that you’ve got background and a certain point of view, I’m awarding you a scholarship to go with me to Lincoln U.
The anger and resentment Gil felt about Lincoln and the tumult reverberating on other campuses inspired his second novel, The Nigger Factory. The provocative title refers to colleges that take young black men and turn them into obedient members of a bourgeois society. Though some of his fellow students and friends at Lincoln became characters in the novel, most of the action was based on the student unrest at Columbia University, Kent State, and his mother’s alma mater, Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. By visiting campuses and meeting students through exchange programs, Gil was well informed of the demonstrations and protests that were exploding on campuses across the country. “Where students were trying to find themselves in one direction were getting pulled in another by folks who can’t remember being young,” Gil told the Denver Westword.
Gil did marathon writing sessions, staying up for days, taking a break every once in a while to play cards in the student union. Again, he would stop by his friend Ade’s room for late-night sessions to talk about the book. He spent a few weeks questioning Ade about one of his characters: “He’s a student leader. What would he say?” Ade gave him answers and realized only later, after reading new chapters, that the character was based on him. “Gil was a great listener, he had a good ear, and that was obvious in the way he wrote things. He could capture the way things sounded; that was true with his poetry and the songs he wrote.”
By the summer of 1970, Gil’s circle of friends and collaborators at Lincoln was going through some changes. David Barnes and Victor Brown had graduated and headed off in different directions, which basically disbanded the Black and Blues. That left Gil and Brian, with some help from Knowles, to write music just for themselves. As would be the pattern for a decade to come, Gil focused on the lyrics and some simple melodic riffs, and Brian composed most of the music. But Gil was distracted that summer by the long-awaited publication of The Vulture.
When it was released on June 25, 1970, the novel attracted some notice for its raw street-smart vibe, though it was never destined to dominate the bestseller lists. Some critics described The Vulture as a cross between the work of reformed pimp Iceberg Slim and crime writer Donald Goines for its tough ghetto slang and pulp fiction style. The review in the publishing trade magazine Kirkus praised Gil for using flashbacks to ratchet up the tension, with scenes of distraught parents at a kitchen table, though it wasn’t impressed by his character development. Still, the reviewer wrote that “the patois rings true, giving a movement and strength the characterizations lack, existing as they do for just that time, place and action.”
Almost as satisfying as the critical approval was the monetary reward. Gil used the five-thousand-dollar advance to pay his tuition, buy textbooks, and treat himself to a car: a used white 1965 Nash Rambler convertible with a hundred thousand miles on it. Back at school, he drove the band to gigs in it and took road trips to explore the rest of the country beyond New York and Pennsylvania.
Publication of The Vulture validated Gil’s focus on writing, but he still enjoyed performing and playing music. By the start of the decade, he realized that he could have the best of both worlds without compromising his ideals. Poetry fit into the African American tradition of the spoken word, and many of his poems became lyrics for songs that he composed with Brian. “A lot of times, people can say in poems things they can’t say to you personally, but they need to get that information across,” he told James Maycock. “I don’t think poetry will ever lose its place in the community. I think it’s more important than ever.” He realized that writing poetry and song lyrics was its own challenge, compared to the breadth of long-form prose or novels. “To do 8 lines and tell a story, it puts you to work.”
Gil’s experience in Jackson and the blues he heard coming out of local clubs and on the radio shaped his writing style: the pathos and gut-wrenching emotional honesty of the blues. And the rhythm of the blues shaped the way he wrote poems—“lotta hittin’ on the one down there,” he said, meaning that he would emphasize certain words on certain beats, anticipating by a decade the revolution of hip-hop, with its emphasis on rhythmic speech over music. Gil also borrowed some of the styles used by Langston Hughes and other poets of the Harlem Renaissance to get the intended effect in his poems and lyrics, which was to convey his own observations to the man on the street, who wasn’t necessarily equipped with a master’s degree in English literature. He was heavily influenced by the way Langston Hughes used humor and wordplay to highlight contradictions such as the reality of life in America versus the way people thought things were. Some of Gil’s compo- sitions also seemed to borrow some of Hughes’s style, adopting a preacherly cadence to mock old elitist traditions. In “Comment #1”—“And the new word to have is revolution / People don’t even want to hear the preacher spill or spiel / Because God’s whole card has been thoroughly piqued / And America is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey”—Gil takes aim at the black church, echoing Hughes’s attack on academia in “Letters to the Academy,” in which Hughes challenged “all you gentlemen with beards” to “come forward and speak upon / The subject of the revolution.”
By 1970, Gil had written a few dozen poems that worked as song lyrics, most of them political and social commentary such as “Brother,” “Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?” and one song that will define him for- ever. That spring, he and Brian and some friends were sitting around watching TV one night in one of the dorms when a news report came on about a demonstration. The newscasters started talking about how many people were taking part. “We said, ‘People ought to get out there and do something; the revolution won’t be televised,” Gil later recounted. “A cat said, ‘You ought to write that down.’ ” Over the next few weeks, Gil started writing down lyrics in his notebook, and he and Brian started paying more attention to what was actually being shown on television. They noticed the commercials, and the friends commented to each other on the insidiously persuasive power of ads for everything from toilet cleaner to breakfast cereal. The contrast between the commercials and the demonstrations in the streets could not have been more glaring: one was on TV, and the other was live. When he was finished writing, he titled the poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
This excerpt is from “Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man” by Marcus Baram, published on November 11, 2014 by St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2014 by Marcus Baram. Reprinted with permission of author. All rights reserved.
Photo by Chuck Stewart