Nina Simone. Sam Cooke. Sly Stone. Three Powerful Calls For Racial Justice And Equality From The Civil Rights Era…Richard Pryor’s Powerful “SNL” Race Sketch…

Thousands of people gather for a peaceful demonstration in support of George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet and protest against racism, injustice and police brutality, in Vancouver, on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

Rising Up Against Racial Injustice…

This powerful photo captures the energy of the people who have risen up to protest the tragic and senseless murder of George Floyd.

Thanks to all of the members of the press for continuing to cover these important protests across the US and around the world. At a time when our Government has seemed to declare war on the press, this news coverage is more vital than ever.

I applaud everyone who has taken to the streets, especially in our nation’s capital, to make sure that the tragic death of George Floyd isn’t forgotten.

I have also been sharing stories of the civil rights struggle in the US…it was only 60 years ago that our country was heavily segregated, and racial violence was widespread.

Here are three songs that tackled the subject during the civil rights movement of the 60’s…

Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” – 1964

The murder of Civil Rights Activist Medger Evers informs this passionate and energetic call to action. The track’s bouncy rhythm teases us with the idea that it “is just a show tune,” as Nina Simone says early on.

“The name of this tune is Mississippi goddam
And I mean every word of it
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam
Alabama’s gotten me so upset

This is a show tune
But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet…”

Gradually, though, the frenetic pace underscores the existential despair of the song’s narrator, who has “hound dogs” on her trail and thinks every day’s “gonna be her last.”

“Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer
Don’t tell me
I tell you
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’
Where am I going
What am I doing
I don’t know
I don’t know”

The lyrics build in power as the song continues:

“I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying ‘Go slow!’
‘Go slow!’
But that’s just the trouble
‘Do it slow’
‘Do it slow’
Mass participation
‘Do it slow’
‘Do it slow’
Do things gradually
‘Do it slow’
But bring more tragedy
‘Do it slow’
Why don’t you see it
Why don’t you feel it
I don’t know
I don’t know
You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi goddam, that’s it”

Here is the song as performed by Simone:

the title had a lot of relevance to me, as I had the chance to walk a bit of the Mississippi Freedom Trail when I was in Jackson – a very sobering experience. You can see more of the signs of the civil rights fight by clicking on my story here:

Next up is another powerful song from the same year:

Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” – 1964

I saw a write up for this song that asked this question:

“What allows a person to have faith that love will eventually trump hate when he’s continually being knocked down to his knees?”

The answer was the belief that, as Sam Cooke sings with strength and determination, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Here are the powerful lyrics:

“I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ev’r since
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep tellin’ me don’t hang around
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees, oh
There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will”

Here is this powerful song, using images from the civil rights struggle at the time:

Last, Singer Sly Stone, known for upbeat funk, used his popularity to speak directly to the ugliness of the issue:

“Don’t Call Me N*****, Whitey” by Sly and the Family Stone – 1969

This one-verse song “Don’t Call Me N*****, Whitey” spoke to inability to see across racial lines at the time it was recorded.

The song is an ever more powerful chant from both sides, each unwilling to hear the other:

“Don’t call me n***er, whitey!
Don’t call me whitey, n***er!
Don’t call me n***er, whitey!
Don’t call me whitey, n***er!

Well I went down across the country,
and I heard some voices rang.
They was talkin’ softly to each other
and not a word could change a thing.

Don’t call me n***er, whitey!
Don’t call me whitey, n***er!
Don’t call me n***er, whitey!
Don’t call me whitey, n***er!”

Here is a terrific live performance by Sly & The Family Stone, beginning with “Hot Fun (In The Summertime), then into this protest song:

Sly Stone’s song reminded me of this brilliant sketch from the first season of “Saturday Night Live” in 1975.

The sketch was called “Word Association”, and Chevy Chase is interviewing Richard Pryor for a job. He asks what comes to mind when he says a word.

But this “word association” increases in racial tension until the shocking and hilarious climax.

The exchange is legendary and unprecedented for the use of the “N” word on network television.

It is sad to see that sketch for two reasons: first, to have lost the brilliant Richard Pryor. Second, this was 45 years ago and we haven’t seemed to change much.

I’ve bene sharing other examples of the fight against racism in our country, like these two Spike Lee films:

It’s a powerful double bill – you can see the trailers and more by clicking on my story here:

The songs I shared were all from the 60’s, just like this powerful film from 1967 that also focused on race:

“In The Heat Of The Night” is one of the best Oscar winning Best Pictures, see the trailer and more about this “revolution” in film that year by clicking on my story here:

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As the issue of racism in America continues, new films, songs and social media will continue to tackle the subject in powerful ways…

Categories: 70's Music, Art, Books / Media, Memoirs, Music, Politics, Pop Culture, Talent/Celebrities

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6 replies

  1. You have captured the essence of our problematic history, John. I especially enjoyed the SNL skit with Richard Pryor. Great post!


  2. Outstanding, John. Let’s keep this inspiration going!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Three powerful voices! Good post


  4. Whatever happened to ‘Protest Songs’, I wonder? Modern musicians have so much influence , and now have the bonus of video and the Internet to get their message across. But I don’t hear anyone recording songs like the classics from the 60s and 70s.
    Nice feature, John.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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