Producing a song about racism and society’s unwillingness to see it is a difficult task, but Nina Simone did so with her song “Mississippi Goddam,” taking it to the biggest music stages in America. The song is one of her biggest bouts of protest, a loud, passionate song reacting to senseless violence against Black folks.
It specifically comes right after the politically motivated assassination of Medgar Evers by a member of the White Citizens Council, a white supremacist organization. Evers was an activist that worked with the NAACP, specifically around voter rights and desegregation. In her autobiography, Simone said the assassination evoked a new feeling:
“Until songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ just burst out of me, I had musical problems as well. How can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune? That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate. But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ I realized there was no turning back.”
Her pain is morphed into a legendary song with “Mississippi Goddam,” an unflinching criticism of white supremacist delusion and its violent impacts. Supported and emphasized by a pulsating, fast tempo, Simone’s voice comes through clearly. She switches between singing and speaking during the song, but the beat never stops, a representation of the consistent motivation necessary for fighting for human rights.
As always, her voice brings out the best of blues and soul music, a hearty delivery that displays the deep-seeded emotion that comes out when it feels as though evil is prevailing. While she may have been wary of being limiting in her memory of Medgar Evers, the depth of her voice leaves no feeling backstage. Seeing her perform this song in a live fashion must have been a transformative experience; she’s clearly interacting with the crowd and understanding the power she has to communicate her experiences and feelings.
Backed by the carefully-constructed blues atmosphere of the song, Simone’s lyrics are the center of the show:
Hound dogs on my trail / school children sitting in jail / black cat cross my path / I think every day’s gonna be my lastNina Simone, on “Mississippi Goddam”
These lyrics bring together two important facets of the blues tradition, as idioms like ‘hound dog’ and ‘black cat’ combine with lived experiences; “school children sitting in jail” and “I think every day’s gonna be my last.” Simone gives the audience no choice but to confront the real impacts of white supremacist violence.
All I want is equality / For my sister my brother my people and me / Yes you lied to me all these years / You told me to wash and clean my ears / And talk real fine like a lady / And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie / Oh but this country is full of lies / You’re all gonna die and die like flies / I don’t trust you anymoreNina Simone, on “Mississippi Goddam”
Another important aspect of the song is her rejection of the need for full verses; towards the end of the song she switches into full call-and-response mode. She calls for desegregation, mass participation, and reunification, but is met with a consistent response: “do it slow.”
This aspect of the song makes clear how she feels about most Americans that would prefer to sit comfortably rather than fight for the necessary radical change. The response, ‘do it slow,’ represents the fact that resistance to social justice movements is not solely done in overtly racist fashions, it’s also done in a more subtle manner. It’s a powerful part of the song, and displays the spectrum of racism that exists in America, a thought many White Americans probably weren’t ready for at the moment.
“Mississippi Goddam” is an unforgettable song, one that helped pave the way for Black musicians to express themselves with more honesty and passion than they could before. She paid many prices for it, including her happiness and her career in music, but her music will live on for centuries as an example of Black women making themselves heard against all odds.