12019-03-12T23:58:51+00:00Stanford University Pressaf84c3e11fe030c51c61bbd190fa82a3a1a1282413plainpublished2019-10-02T00:57:08+00:00Production Editor7a3dce28be212b1ba5b4a7a50f3d6a8d76b58c74Nina Simone with Stephen Cleary, I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone (New York: Da Capo Press, 1993), 89.
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12019-03-12T23:56:48+00:00September 16, 19637plainpublished2019-10-02T00:55:39+00:00On September 16, 1963, the Chicago Defender reported that racists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls (fourteen-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, and eleven-year-old Denise McNair). The blast also injured dozens of people, including ten-year-old Sarah Collins who lost her right eye. The Defender made it clear that this was not an isolated incident: “It was the 21st bombing in the Deep South steel city since the end of World War II and the fourth in four weeks.” (Click to view article PDF.)
In her autobiography, Nina Simone recalled that she wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the Birmingham church bombing:
I was sitting there in my den . . . when news came over the radio that somebody had thrown dynamite into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama while black children were attending a Bible study class. . . . It was more than I could take, and I sat struck dumb in my den like St. Paul on the road to Damascus: all the truths that I had denied to myself for so long rose up and slapped my face. The bombing of the little girls in Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers were like the final pieces of a jigsaw that made no sense until you had fitted the whole thing together. I suddenly realized what it was to be black in America in 1963.111
The lyrics of “Mississippi Goddam” express Simone’s indignation at the repeated acts of racial terror in the United States: “Alabama’s got me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam.” With “everybody knows,” Simone captures the fact that, with national media coverage of the assassination of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing, it would have been difficult for anyone not to be aware of these events. Still, Simone makes it clear that this awareness does not equal a commitment or sense of urgency to fight for racial equality: “Why don’t you see it? / Why don’t you feel it? / I don’t know / I don’t know.”