Steve Barrett on PR: A Change Is Gonna Come

Sam Cooke’s iconic song was written in 1964 – 56 years later, could we finally be on the threshold of real change in providing equal opportunity to people of all colors?

Photo credit: Getty Images

Soul legend Sam Cooke wrote "A Change Is Gonna Come" in response to events that happened to him while touring in the South of the United States.

Cooke, his wife and band were turned away from a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1963 and shouted out of their cars and sounded their horns while driving away. On arriving downtown, they were met by the police and arrested for disturbing the peace.

At the hotel, Cooke’s wife, Barbara, apparently urged him to calm down, saying, “They’ll kill you,” but the iconic soul singer replied, “They ain’t gonna kill me, because I’m Sam Cooke.”

"A Change Is Gonna Come" was released in 1964, but later that year Cooke was killed, in a hotel in Los Angeles, shot dead in a mysterious incident that has never properly been explained.

The song included the following powerful words:

Oh, when I go to my brother
I'd say brother, help me, please
But he winds up knockin' me
Back down on my knees

A few months later, these words would have surely resonated during the brutal police response to peaceful protesters in Selma, Alabama lobbying for voting rights. 

Fast forward to 2020 and, here we are watching horrific videos of black men dying in police custody, officers openly flashing white power signs while monitoring peaceful protests, and listening to the mothers of black boys voicing their concerns about what will happen to their sons out on the streets of modern America.

Last year, Cooke’s family finally received an apology from Shreveport’s mayor 55 years after the incident happened and the singer was posthumously awarded the key to the city, but honestly it’s difficult to state with confidence that any definitive change has come in the intervening decades.

This time does, however, feel different, and as I discussed last week, it is business that can lead the way in helping make that change.

Yes, there is a lot of tokenism taking place as corporations, brands and PR agencies tweak their logos and social media presences, publish statement letters, conduct listening sessions, hand out donations to worthy causes and pledge to appoint more people of color to senior positions in their organizations.

However, black PR professionals have heard this all before numerous times. They were among black employees from more than 200 firms who this week demanded better diversity and inclusion and wage equity policies across the communications and advertising industries.

They say D&I programs have made little difference to hearing more black voices in the creative process or black employees rising to senior leadership roles.

But there are also real statements of intent and action that could represent a tipping point in the discussion about racial injustice in America.

This week, numerous high-profile business leaders and editors have stepped down due to dissatisfaction with the levels of racism and toxicity in their organizations or actions that didn’t live up to the expectations of staffers in the post-George Floyd climate.

CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman, The Wing founder Audrey Gelman, opinion editor James Bennet at The New York Times, Variety editor Claudia Eller, Refinery29 editor Christene Barberich, Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport and Condé Nast Entertainment VP Matt Duckor, Vanderpump Rules stars Kristen Doute and Stassi Schroeder all find themselves out of work or on leave of absence after a tumultuous week. Hell, even Cops and Live PD have been canceled.

Everyone is on notice that higher standards are, rightfully, expected and that paying lip service to the topic is not enough.

As usual, certain brands have stepped up.

Procter & Gamble’s latest spot is impressive. Following The Look and The Talk, the CPG behemoth released The Choice, encouraging white people to use their influence to actively combat racism. It was developed by ad agency Grey and, more importantly, Cartwright, a new WPP shop founded by former 72andSunny creative Keith Cartwright, who is black.

This is P&G putting its money where its mouth is and commissioning black talent to produce its highest-profile marketing activations.

It is part of the real actions that will eventually lead to demonstrable change in society and greater equality for all races in the United States.

There's still a tremendously long way to go and massive changes in behavior and real commitments to action are required. But, hopefully, it's a sign that, 56 years after Sam Cooke wrote those iconic words, finally a real change is going to come - because it simply has to.

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