Martha Reeves reflects on her life then and now
By Charles Hallman
As she slowly strolled through the “1968 Exhibit” now at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, Martha Reeves reflected on a time that many consider a turning point for this nation. In town to perform at the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis, Reeves, who is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, shared comments with the MSR during her walk through the exhibit on January 12.
Now 70 years old, Reeves talked fondly of the vintage fashions and pop culture of the day. “We could wear our hair long…I loved that,” she said of the Peace Movement. She also talked about her brother serving in the Navy as she stood in front of the Vietnam War portion of the exhibit.
The 5,000-square-foot multimedia traveling exhibit features artifacts; television, film and news clips; oral histories and other activities presented in a chronological order. A Huey helicopter and a full-sized replica of the Apollo 8 capsule are there.
So many turning-point events happened in 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy; rioting outside the Democratic National Convention that summer; and such terms as “Black Power” and “feminist” emerging as permanent references. The 1968 Exhibit is the result of a partnership with the MHC, Chicago History Museum, Atlanta History Center and the Oakland Museum of California.
“For us coming to this exhibit and having lived through it, it’s these touchstones of memories,” said its curator, Brian Horrigan. “But for other people, they might look at that picture of Richard Nixon over there and it means nothing to them — they don’t know who he is.
“Or the famous photograph of the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City — that was such a powerful icon, and it had to be in this exhibit. People who are younger, who didn’t live through it, don’t know what that single gesture meant.
“We put a lot of energy into the Dr. King section of the exhibit, and I hope people come away knowing that he was more than just a martyr,” continued Horrigan.
Reeves, somberly watching the black-and-white scenes from Dr. King, Jr.’s funeral and listening to the late gospel singer Mahala Jackson singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”, recalled, “I got to meet [Dr. King’s] daughter Yolanda.”
When Horrigan told her that the song was Dr. King’s favorite, Reeves pointed out that the song’s author wrote it for his dying wife. “It was by her bedside that he wrote ‘Precious Lord.’ It was three or four hours before she gave up her ghost that he wrote that song.”
“She [Reeves] is such an important figure from that period of the ’60s…to have someone like that here in this environment, people are so electrified to have her here,” Horrigan said.
Reeves posed for pictures with fans and chatted with them as they brought personal items for her to sign and they swapped remembrances. “She is a survivor and an historian,” said Horrigan of Reeves. “I hope people are getting all those stories down, because there is just this wealth of history in that beautiful head.”
Besides her legendary singing career, Reeves also was once elected to the Detroit City Council (2005-2009). “I enjoyed every minute of it,” she admitted of her only political stint. “I learned so much about Detroit, and I learned about politicians.”
Two scandals that ultimately brought down the city’s mayor and council president also occurred during her term. “I didn’t take bribes,” Reeves added, noting that she is proud of her work that included getting tax incentives for local small businesses and being an advocate for seniors.
“I knew a lot of seniors, and I spent a lot of my time helping them. I got a lot of political strength talking to the seniors because of their wisdom,” she noted.
She also helped get a portion of West Grand Boulevard where Motown Records began renamed after its founder, Berry Gordy, Jr. The house that Gordy transformed into recording studios and offices is now an historical landmark and home of the Motown Museum.
Reeves expressed sadness over what her hometown has now become, however. “The Detroit that I knew will never exist again,” bemoaned the oldest girl of 11 children who grew up there after her family moved from the South when she was three years old. “It doesn’t have the love of each other that we had. The unity that Detroit once had is over.”
Reeves’ visit to the 1968 Exhibit, which debuted October 14 and ends February 20, “was a dream come true,” said Horrigan. “It has been amazing to have a real live person from the 1960s who meant a whole lot to me.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.