“Mississippi Goddam” and Black Lives Matter

Nina Simone in 1965
Nina Simone in 1965
By Shannon Stearns, Hope College

Nina Simone’s Background

Nina Simone, a classically trained pianist who began singing a mixture of jazz, pop, and soul had commercial success with songs like “I Love You Porgy.” Her life and legacy changed in 1964 with “Mississippi Goddam.” She used the anger that the Sixteenth Street Baptist church bombing and Medgar Evers murder inspired and wrote an anthem about an entire movements’ pain. Not only is her anthem still relevant today for the Black Lives Matter movement, it has made way for artists like Beyoncé to write their own anthems. Today, renewed interest in Nina Simone is seen in a recently released tribute album as well as two documentaries about the songstress. The revitalization comes at a time when Black Lives Matter activists are providing a new audience for Simone’s anthem.

Nina Simone’s childhood in the Jim Crow-era South slated her to be an artist-activist. From an early age, she wanted to be a classically trained pianist. When she moved to New York City to attend Julliard, her goal was to move on to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but unfortunately Curtis rejected her. Simone believed this decision was based on racism. To earn money performing in nightclubs in Atlantic City, she began to sing popular hits.[1] Simone became political when Medgar Evers was murdered and the Sixteenth Street Baptist church was bombed, killing four African American girls.

“Mississippi Goddam”

 

Congress of Racial Equality marching in memory of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing victims. (Courtesy of Google Images)
Congress of Racial Equality marching in memory of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing victims. (Courtesy of Google Images)

Four Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the third bombing in only eleven days.[2] When Simone heard about the church bombing in Alabama, she immediately wrote her powerful protest song. Historian Ruth Feldstein states, “It came to her in a ‘rush of fury, hatred, and determination’ as she ‘suddenly realized what it was to be black in America in 1963.’ It was, she said, ‘my first civil rights song.’”[3] When Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam”, author A. Loudermilk says, “She aimed her protest ‘show tune’ at patriarchal white-supremacy as well as the ‘go slow’ politics of liberalism, announcing ‘You’re all gonna die and die like flies.’”[4] Simone was frustrated with the racism she lived through, with being told to go slow, and with the lack of results from nonviolent activism. Not only did she live next to Malcolm X, she supported his belief in equality through any means necessary.

“Mississippi Goddam” was not just a commentary on the injustice of the 1960s, it was also the song of a movement. Feldstein points out, “’Mississippi Goddam’ was a political anthem. The lyrics were filled with anger and despair and stood in stark contrast to the fast-paced and rollicking rhythm.”[5] Simply saying “goddam” in her song showed how passionate she was about the cause. By writing “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone was, “a window into a world beyond dominant liberal civil rights organizations and leaders and into networks of activist cultural producers.”[6] Simone was not an isolated artist; she was part of a group of artist-activists who used their creativity to voice their frustration.

Beyoncé has also written an anthem with her song and music video, “Formation” where she sings about Black pride. The music video shows a young boy dancing in front of police in riot gear with “stop shooting us” spray painted on a nearby wall. Priscilla Ward argues:

“Formation” is a lyrical memoir of coming to terms with [Beyoncé’s] blackness—something much of young black America is trying to figure out how to do ourselves, as we’ve become increasingly more aware of the challenges that being black can present.[7]

This is exactly what Simone did with “Mississippi Goddam.” She wrote about a movement, not just the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing. Her lyrics, “Picket lines, school boycotts. They try to say it’s a communist plot, all I want is equality for my sister, my brother, my people and me” show that she’s not just upset about the church bombing. Simone encompasses so much of the Civil Rights Movement in just one song.

Backlash

Unfortunately, “Mississippi Goddam” damaged Simone’s career. Radio stations hated what she was saying. Biographers Sylvia Hampton and David Nathan point out:

The millions who shared her beliefs were inspired . . . .The establishment, however, saw her in a different light. What gave this black woman the right to stand up and highlight the suffering of an entire section of the population?[8]

“Mississippi Goddam,” inspired activists but angered critics. Journalist Adam Chandler states, “The song was banned in several states. Simone’s daughter Lisa describes how boxes of the records would return from radio stations around the country cracked in half. Her career never fully recovered.”[9] Similar to Simone’s experience, many positively view Beyoncé’s “Formation” as a Black Lives Matter anthem, but critics believe the song and its music video pay homage to the Black Panthers, who they believe were a violent, militant group. Regardless of decade, it takes bravery to go from artist to activist.

1_Year_Commemoration_of_the_Murder_of_Michael_Brown,_the_Ferguson_Rebellion,_&_the_Black_Lives_Matter_uprising._(20426285322)
Black Lives Matter protestors (courtesy of WikiCommons)

Sadly, Nina Simone’s contribution to the Civil Rights Movement is often overlooked. Author A. Loudermilk points out this unfairness by stating, “When the subject is Nina Simone, the Civil Rights Movement is inevitably if not immediately the context . . . When the subject is the Civil Rights Movement, Nina Simone and her anthems go unacknowledged.”[10] For example, Simone is not mentioned in Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830-1970, original SNCC director John Lewis’ memoir, or the Smithsonian Folkways compilation Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966.[11]

Then and Now

Today there is renewed interest in the importance of Simone and her impact. Reporter Moni Basu argues, “In the aftermath of nationwide police brutality protests and most recently, the slaughter of black lives in a Charleston church, Simone’s music is as relevant as it was when she first turned her music into a vehicle for activism.”[12] In 2012, the Civil Rights Movement was born again as the Black Lives Matter movement after the senseless killings of young African American people including Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin have forced a new generation of African Americans to realize what it means to be black in America. Liz Garbus, the director of the new documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? says, “We need [Mississippi Goddam] today. Look at Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Florida, and South Carolina—we need her today just like her needed her then. She is a necessary voice we need right now.”[13] Simone’s frustration is seen today in the protestors who take a stand to make people realize that Black Lives Matter. Protestors are tired of waiting for police brutality and systematic racism against African Americans to end. Similar to Simone, the Black Lives Matter activists are not asking for politeness, they are fighting for legal protection and equality in an unjust system.

Nina Simone was incredibly important during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, but she was not appreciated enough then. Cut off from the radio and from concert venues, her career was damaged by “Mississippi Goddam,” even though it was the anthem for the movement. The renewed interest in Simone, shown by tribute albums, movies, and documentaries, shows that a new generation is recognizing Simone and her legacy. In What Happened, Miss Simone?, Ambassador Attallah Shabazz says, “Nina Simone was a free spirit in an era that didn’t really appreciate a woman’s genius.”[14] Now, the Black Lives Matter movement is taking place in a new era where genius is more appreciated. Syreeta McFadden says, “While Simone may never have felt that her contribution was fully appreciated by her contemporaries, perhaps her contemporaries were never her rightful audience.”[15] Simone’s protest songs are just as powerful today as when she wrote them. The Black Lives Matter can find inspiration in Simone’s timeless anthem, “Mississippi Goddam” and Beyoncé’s modern counterpart, “Formation.”

[1] What Happened, Miss Simone? Directed by Liz Garbus. Netflix, 2015.

[2] Burt, Sharelle M. “The History of the 1963 16th Street Church Bombing.” NY Daily News. September 15, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/10-key-facts-16th-street-baptist-church-bombings-article-1.2361565.

[3] Ruth Feldstein. “”I Don’t Trust You Anymore”: Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960s.” The Journal of American History 91, no. 4 (March 01, 2005): 1349.

[4] A. Loudermilk “Nina Simone & the Civil Rights Movement: Protest at Her Piano, Audience at Her Feet.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 14, no. 3 (July 2013): 123.

[5] Feldstein, “I Don’t Trust You Anymore”

[6] Feldstein, “I Don’t Trust You Anymore”

[7] Priscilla Ward. “White Beyoncé Haters Don’t Get It: “Formation” Isn’t “race-baiting” — but It Is Unapologetically about Race.” Salon. Accessed February 10, 2016. http://www.salon.com/2016/02/11/white_beyonce_haters_dont_get_it_formation_isnt_race_baiting_but_it_is_unapologetically_about_race/.

[8] Sylvia Hampton and David Nathan. “Mississippi Goddam.” In Nina Simone: Break Down & Let It All Out, 37. London: Sanctuary, 2004.

[9] Adam Chandler. “What Happened to Nina Simone?” The Atlantic. June 27, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/06/nina-simone-and-mississippi-goddam/396923/.

[10] Loudermilk, A. “Nina Simone & the Civil Rights Movement”

[11] Loudermilk, A. “Nina Simone & the Civil Rights Movement”

[12] Moni Basu. “Nina Simone: An Artist and Activist Revisited.” CNN. July 11, 2015.

[13] Antwaun Sargent. “The Revolutionary Legacy of Nina Simone Remains as Relevant Today as Ever | VICE | United States.” VICE. July 8, 2015. http://www.vice.com/read/the-revolutionary-legacy-of-nina-simone-565.

[14] What Happened, Miss Simone? Directed by Liz Garbus. Netflix, 2015.

[15] McFadden. “The Fierce Urgency of Nina Simone Now.”

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