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Past & Present: Protest Songs Of Nina Simone

Photograph by Carol Friedman

Nina Simone, nicknamed the High Priestess of Soul, was an American jazz and blues musician of the late twentieth century. Born Eunice Waymon on Feb. 21, 1933, she moved to New York and then Philadelphia to study classical piano, before transforming herself into a nightclub performer and jazz vocalist. While she is mostly known for her illustrious musical career, she also became an outspoken advocate for civil rights. Simone used her music to discuss her views and her rage at the injustice of racism and segregation.

In 1964 Simone released “Mississippi Goddam,” a musical response to the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four black girls. Composed in less than an hour, it is a song that expresses her deep rage, and fury over these events. It also served as a defiant challenge to the widely held belief that race relations could change gradually. Banned throughout the South, “Mississippi Goddam” marked the beginning of a civil rights message in her recorded repertoire and live performances.

As her music increasingly challenged Jim Crow, Simone became more active in civil rights movements. She participated in the marches from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights, supported the separatist positions of the Black Nationalist Movement, and became a vocal supporter of Malcolm X. Eventually, the United States’ insufficient response to racism and involvement in Vietnam left Simone disillusioned. In 1970, she left the U.S. for Barbados, and eventually settled in France.

Over 50 years later, Nina Simone’s protest songs remain relevant and uncompromising statements in the face of a United States that still has not grappled with its history of segregation and continued racial inequalities.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.