In 1963, the singer Nina Simone was so angry she wanted to go out and kill somebody. The civil rights activist Medgar Evers had been murdered in June and four months later four little black girls died in the bombing of the Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Nina Simone’s husband and manager said, “No, Nina. You can’t kill nobody. You’re a musician. Do what you do.”
So she sat at her piano and an hour later she had a new song: Mississippi Goddam, one of the great civil rights era songs. The following year, at Carnegie Hall in front of a mostly white audience, she introduced the song by saying “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written yet.” There followed four minutes of this beautiful, melodious holler against injustice. The southern states banned the song. One radio station returned a box of the promotional singles with the records broken neatly in half. But the song lives on: Mississippi Goddam.
When the slave-turned-writer/activist Frederick Douglass was a child, his white mistress, knowing no better, began to teach him literacy. First the ABCs and then words of three or four letters. When her husband found out, he was furious. He told her to stop. It was unlawful. Worse, it was dangerous. A black man should know nothing but how to obey his owner. “Learning would spoil him,” said the master. “It would unfit him to be a slave. And it could do him no good. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” Frederick Douglass later wrote, “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. I set out with high hope and a fixed purpose, to learn how to read.”
Twenty years later, having escaped from slavery, he published his autobiography. He went on speaking tours all over the country and in Great Britain, regaling the world about the evils of slavery. He became a journalist and a newspaper editor and publisher. His master was right: literacy unfit him to be a slave.
14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered by white supremacists on August 28th, 1955. His crime had been talking inappropriately to a white female cashier. Or wolf-whistling her. Or touching her hand. We don’t really know because the woman kept changing her story. The two murderers, who later admitted to the killing, were acquitted by an all-white jury in 67 minutes. “It would have been quicker if we hadn’t taken a break to drink pop,” said one of the jurors. Mamie Till, the boy’s mother, insisted the casket be left open during the funeral procession, because, she said, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” And then she said, “I don’t have a minute to hate. I’ll pursue justice for the rest of my life.” And that’s exactly what she did for the next forty-seven years.
And so I say this to every man or woman of every color and creed. Hate destroys the hater. It’s too heavy a burden to bear.
And to those who have been persecuted, oppressed, and downtrodden, it isn’t enough to be black and blue. Do something with your anger: make music like Nina Simone, write books like Frederick Douglass, fight for justice like Mamie Till. Change the world.
[A version of this essay first appeared in The Bored Friday Project: Volume 5]