Black History Month: an Iconic Protest Song By Nina Simone

Photo by Ron Kroon.

By Ryan Scates/WUSF

A song of fiery, righteous anger. Nina Simone boldly went where no black woman had gone before when she performed her song “Mississippi, Goddamn” in public for the first time at a Carnegie Hall concert in New York in 1964.

It was set over a furious tempo and was introduced unapologetically.

“The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi God-DAMN,’” she declared to the mostly white audience, “…and I mean every word of it.”

In the first verse she refers to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Alabama in 1963 that killed four children and the violence over desegregation in Tennessee before setting her focus on Mississippi, where civil rights leader Medgar Evans was assassinated in 1963.

“Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddamn”

But It was the news of the Alabama church bombing, Simon later wrote in her autobiography, that spurred her to write this song, which she began to compose an hour after hearing the news.

“All the truths that I had denied to myself for so long rose up and slapped my face… I suddenly realized what it was to be Black in America in 1963, but it wasn’t an intellectual connection…it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination.”

The second verse was also a dire cry where Simone wonders about her own mortality after she referenced Alabama Governor George Wallace’s use of hound dogs to arrest school children who were peacefully protesting.

“Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last”

In the refrain, Simone echoes the argument that Martin Luther King Jr. took in his Birmingham County Jail letter, when she attacked those who think civil rights activists were pushing too hard for change:

“Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying ‘Go slow!’
But that’s just the trouble
‘Do it slow’
Washing the windows
‘Do it slow’
Picking the cotton
‘Do it slow’
You’re just plain rotten
‘Do it slow’
You’re too damn lazy
‘Do it slow’
The thinking’s crazy
‘Do it slow’”