Joseph Paschall

Feb. 21, 1933, marks the day that Eunice Kathleen Waymon, popularly known as Nina Simone, was born in North Carolina. Nina Simone was a singer who specialized in jazz, blues, pop and classical music. She has earned huge success through her work in the music industry, film industry and civil rights movement.

In her early life, she was the sixth of eight children in her family. Coming from a poor family in North Carolina, she learned early on that her passion was to create music and perform. A notable moment in Simone’s early life that really began to define her as a civil rights activist happened when she was only 12 years old.

At her first recital, her parents, who had picked spots in the front row to listen, were told to move to the back to make way for white members of the church. Simone refused to perform until her parents were allowed to be back up at the front.

During her early years as a performer, Simone was able to earn enough praise to get her into Juilliard.

In the 1950s, Simone went through the journey to achieve early success. Her biggest song of this decade was “I Loves You, Porgy,” which she recorded from the famous opera “Porgy and Bess.” “I Loves You, Porgy” was Simone’s only song to be ranked in the Billboard’s Top 20 in the United States.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Simone’s work became much more focused on achieving equality for African Americans in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. Her song “Mississippi Goddam” was the first song she produced that directly pointed out the issues and inequalities of the segregated states of the South.

“Mississippi Goddam” was a reaction to the murders of African American citizens in the southern United States, including the young victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. After “Mississippi Goddam” was produced, her music began to serve as a cry for change in American society. She came out with songs like “Old Jim Crow” that also pointed out the many issues with the segregated South.

In some states, particularly the southern states, Simone’s recordings were boycotted.

At this point in Simone’s career, she began to engage politically for civil rights. Simone could be spotted speaking at civil rights meetings, including the Selma to Montgomery marches. She was heavily associated with key civil rights figures like Malcolm X and Langston Hughes.

When she talked about her experiences throughout the movement in her autobiography, she said, “I felt more alive then than I feel now because I was needed, and I could sing something to help my people.”

Overall, the work of Nina Simone was necessary to fight against one of the darkest sides of American history. Her music was a symbol to all those fighting for equality at this time in history.

She conveyed a message that one could be successful given hardships and the experience of growing up in a poor, African American family in the South. Her instinct to challenge societal norms on the national stage was extremely important in gaining support.

Simone passed away in 2003. Her legacy continues to inspire as we look back on those who came before us.

Joseph Paschall is a junior majoring in history. He can be reached at jpascha4@vols.utk.edu.

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