Clip | Robert Shaw – Man of Many Voices - Robert Shaw Was an Early Champion of Civil Rights

Robert Shaw’s integrated chorales were among the first to break the color barrier in the American South. He took his inspiring music on the road, bringing his ensembles to small towns across America and to several continents.

Premieres nationwide Friday, June 21 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS Video app.

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- [Narrator] Shaw faced other challenges during his years in Cleveland.

In the 1960s he made three trips to the American South, with the integrated Robert Shaw Chorale.

- [Male Interviewee] We were, very frankly, the first group that mixed blacks and whites on stages in the South.

There were a lot of mayors that didn't know we integrated their hotels, too.

- To fight those battles, to say no we will not stay in that hotel, if we cannot all stay in that hotel.

No, we will not perform in the big concert hall if blacks are not permitted to sit with whites in that concert hall.

This was enormously important to him.

- [Narrator] A concert took place on Easter Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama, at a time when the city was embroiled in some of the nation's bitterest civil rights struggles.

The program was Handel's Messiah, with soloists Seth McCoy and Lorna Haywood.

- And the people in the front rows, when they saw Seth come out and sit next to me on the platform, were outraged.

They were outraged.

- [Male Interviewee] In the south you had the front three rows, which were the expensive rows, get up and leave as our group walked on stage.

- After the overture, they started the restitutive, Comfort Ye, My People.

♪ Comfort ye ♪ - [Narrator] Seth McCoy sang that and dissolved everybody into tears.

♪ Comfort ye, my people ♪ - [Narrator] Once the music had begun, Handel's Messiah was performed without incident.

- [Male Interviewee] We never canceled a concert or we never changed personnel.

In some respects, we led that crusade in the arts.