billie holiday almost died in jail -- 3/15/21

Today's selection -- from Florynce "Flo" Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical by Sherie M. Randolph. Billie Holiday had many legal troubles during her career. She was addicted to heroin and was targeted as a political activist by the police and FBI after she recorded "Strange Fruit" in 1939. Late in life she was assisted by Florynce "Flo" Kennedy, a black feminist activist who kept Ms. Holiday out of jail while she was on her deathbed.

"Holiday was arguably one of the most well known female jazz vocalists of her generation and had several popular recordings, including 'God Bless the Child' and 'Lady Sings the Blues.' Bill Dufty, Kennedy's friend and coauthor of Holiday's autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues: The Searing Autobiography of an American Legend, contacted Flo in January 1959 when the U.S. attorney's office threatened to indict Holiday for failing to register with the Customs Bureau before departing on a European tour. The Narcotic Control Act of 1956 mandated that all convicted narcotics users obtain prior permission to travel outside the country. Since Holiday had been convicted for use and possession of narcotics in the late 1940s, this new law applied to her. ... Flo was appalled that Holiday's management company, Associated Booking Corporation, had failed to advise Holiday of the federal statute. After some debate, [Flo's partner Don] Wilkes and Kennedy convinced the U.S. attorney's office not to indict Holiday. 

"Kennedy and Wilkes were contacted again six months later, when the singer was charged with possession of narcotics while she lay dying in her hospital bed. Their major objective was to allow her to spend her last days in a hospital rather than in jail. After some negotiation they blocked her removal, and on July 22, 1959, Billie Holiday passed away at the Metropolitan Hospital in New York City at the age of forty-four. Kennedy's firm's work on behalf of Holiday in the last year of her life comes into sharp relief when juxtaposed with the counsel Holiday received during the majority of her career. Agreeing with Kennedy's assessment, scholars Farah Jasmine Griffin and Stuart Nicholson have concluded that Holiday's previous legal representation was inadequate and the business advice she was given was 'criminally ignorant.' As a black woman, Holiday was also vulnerable to exploitation by the white men who controlled the music business. 

"The United States v. Billie Holiday case of May 27, 1947, underscores this point. After Holiday performed at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia, police arrested her, claiming to have found drugs and needles in her hotel room. Following the counsel of her manager, Joe Glaser, Holiday waived her right to a lawyer and pleaded guilty to the charges of use and possession of narcotics. She then asked that the court grant her treatment instead of jail time. While the judge acknowledged that drug addiction was an illness, he nevertheless sentenced her to one year and a day in federal prison, where she had to quit heroin abruptly and without proper medical care and preparation. In addition, New York cabaret laws prohibited musicians and singers who had been convicted of drug offenses from performing in licensed premises. The unequal enforcement by narcotics agents affected black musicians disproportionately. ...

"Holiday's position as a self-described 'race woman' who often spoke out against racist terrorism made her especially vulnerable to surveillance and repression by the police, FBI, and narcotics officials. In 1939, Holiday's recording of 'Strange Fruit' helped to cement her role as an artist critical of lynching and American racism. Kennedy emphasized Holiday's political importance in her memoir, which describes the first time she heard Holiday sing 'Strange Fruit,' at a benefit concert in Harlem in honor of Emmett Till in 1955. The singer was one of many black people outraged over the murder of a fourteen-year-old boy for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Kennedy characterized Holiday as an outspoken activist on behalf of black people who, despite her genius, was often exploited.

"Black musicians have historically been unfairly persecuted for the political content of their lyrics and for their nonconformist positions. Musicians such as Holiday and Paul Robeson who insisted on creating and performing antiracist music faced the brunt of police and FBI surveillance and repression. Those who, like Robeson, had been affiliated with the Communist Party were treated as enemies of the United States by the federal government. Throughout Holiday's career she was adamant about performing 'Strange Fruit,' despite objections from club and theater owners and harassment from the FBI. She maintained that it was no coincidence that her 1947 arrest came the day after she defied an order not to sing the song during a concert. Holiday's insistence that she was hunted like an animal for most of her career is supported by her FBI file, which documents that she was continually tracked and monitored.

"Kennedy recognized that Holiday was being unfairly exploited by her management and her record label. She argued that the publishing and record companies were complicit in supporting black performers' drug habits; it enabled them to take advantage of Holiday and musicians such as Charlie Parker who 'were highly exploitable by the publishing and record companies because of their addictions.' Had the companies 'not benefited by their being on drugs, and therefore highly dependent and vulnerable, they would have [been supported in] kick[ing] the habit long before.'"



Sherie M. Randolph


Florynce 'Flo' Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical


University of North Carolina Press


Copyright Sherie M. Randolph


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