Simone wrote the song in response to the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four black girls in September 1963 as they prepared to celebrate Sunday services.
Simone wrote the song just days after the bombing, but it was meant as a wider condemnation of America’s legacy of brutality and oppression toward Black people, including the assassination only months earlier of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in June 1963 and the beating death in 1955 of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi.
Simone reportedly performed the song for the first time at a Los Angeles nightclub, where she sarcastically told the audience, “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.”
Carrying Simone’s analogy one step further, I’d like to believe that the Black Lives Matter marches against police brutality that erupted a year ago in the U.S. and around the world in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer were the first act of that show.
Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who murdered Floyd by pressing his knee against the back of Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes as a crowd of people looked on, was convicted in April and awaits sentencing. But over the past 12 months, as has long been the case, the unjustified killing of Blacks and other people of color at the hands of racist perpetrators has continued unabated and often with impunity.
Bad cops have been getting away with killing us all along, but the fact that almost everyone today carries a video camera 24-7 has made it harder to cover up those crimes. I’m hardly alone in thinking that Chauvin might well have escaped prosecution, even conviction, if it hadn’t been for a teenaged girl who happened upon the scene and had the presence of mind and courage to record Chauvin’s crime in progress.
Part of me understands that Floyd’s murder was just one more reaction by a bitter segment of our country’s white majority that decided long ago that people of color simply have no right to a share in the wealth, power and privilege of America’s ruling class. In their mind —and I’m talking not about all white people but the white supremacists among them— God blessed America for just for them and any attempt to challenge that “divine” prerogative is tantamount to blasphemy.
It’s that same sense of entitlement that white supremacists used to justify slavery, the genocide and expulsion of Native Americans, and even the conquest and theft in the mid-1800s of what became the American Southwest from the Mexicans, who along with the Spaniards before them had stolen it from its indigenous peoples.
Fast forward to the reign over today’s GOP by America’s only ever twice-impeached, white supremacist president, Donald J. Trump (we’ve had other white supremacist presidents but they were never impeached), and we find a Republican Party that has decided, not unlike Chauvin, that it could care less if it’s being videotaped as it commits a crime against democracy by trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election by whatever means possible, including the violent assault January 6 of the U.S. Capitol.
The only way to interpret the now more than 400 Republican bills nationwide aimed at suppressing the voting rights of people of color is through the lens of white supremacy and loyal sidekick authoritarianism. The same goes for the GOP’s endless demands for endless recounts of the 2020 ballots in states like Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and elsewhere.
None of this is politics as usual, a battle of ideologies, conservatism vs liberalism. Ultimately, it’s nothing less than a slow-motion coup meant to ensure America’s ruling class remains overwhelmingly white.
While I am convinced that most white people in America are not racist, I also believe a powerful, substantial core of white supremacists today have the GOP in a metaphorical chokehold that far too many Republicans are unwilling to resist, selfish and fearful that their privilege might slip away.
Part of our country’s politics and policing practices go hand in hand since bad leaders have always needed bad cops to maintain order. If you think I’m just picking on Republicans, let’s not forget that it was the Democrats who led the fight to maintain white control in the decades leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the mid-1960s.
In what came to be known as her signature protest anthem, “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone sang: “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.”
In the fading moments of his life, George Floyd, had Chauvin had let him breathe, could well have sung those same words.
Still, I hold out hope there’s a better closing act to Floyd’s story that hasn’t been written yet.
James E. Garcia is a journalist, playwright and communications consultant based in Phoenix, AZ, the editor and publisher of the weekly newsletter Vanguardia America, and author of the upcoming book “Vanguardia: The American Latino Renaissance & the Future of Our Nation.” Twitter: @JG_Vanguardia.