Voices of Civil Rights

Nina Simone and James Baldwin, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Photograph © Bernard Gotfryd

For a passionate and prolific response to racism in America we turn to two extraordinary artists from the 1960s: Nina Simone and James Baldwin.  Simone sang about Mississippi lynchings and Baldwin wrote about the profound abuse that Blacks suffered in the South.   The two friends supported each other during one of the most turbulent decades in the fight for Civil Rights.

In “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone sums up the anguish of being Black in America:

Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last.
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer
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.
The song is a cry for justice and relevant today as we consider the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor with the resounding message, “Black Lives Matter.”  

James Baldwin  reminded us that the American promise of equality was one-sided:  “The American Negro,” he wrote, “has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.

“Negroes know far more about white Americans than that,” he added. “It can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.”

Baldwin addressed the Cambridge Union in a debate with William F. Buckley, just weeks after the March on Selma, in March of 1965—a day that would be remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” As Martin Luther King  lamented, hours after his arrest, “There are more Blacks in jail here in Selma than there are on the voting rolls.”  

Resolution: The American Dream has been pursued at the expense of the American Negro.  Baldwin describes how racism erodes the soul of a nation in this impassioned speech.

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