The Alabama Church Bombings in 1963: Responses from the Black Community

The Alabama Church Bombings in 1963 led to a number of mixed responses in the black community. Some people, like Nina Simone, subtly voiced their frustration by writing songs like “Mississippi Goddam. ” Others, such as John Coltrane, felt that rising up and challenging the white man in any way would lead to further havoc and chaos, and thus wrote songs like “Alabama” to express their reactions and expose a detailed account of the tragedy that allows people to understand what really happened that day.

Both “Mississippi Goddam” and “Alabama” are clearly responses o the same tragedy, but it is evident that both Simone and Coltrane chose two very different approaches in addressing this certain situation. While people like Nina Simone feel that a more obvious response is necessary to call attention and bring about change to the black community, people like Coltrane say otherwise, and argue that a sort of musical tribute exposing the events of the Alabama Church Bombing is sufficient and even more effective in persuading people to speak up and desire a change.

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The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was an African- American church that had been used as a rallying point for civil rights activities and as a meeting place for many civil rights leaders (Wikipedia). On the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, four Ku Klux Klan members planted explosives under the steps of the church, and at approximately 10:22 a. m. , the bomb exploded, killing four girls and injuring twenty-two other people.

This incident was what came to be known as the Alabama Church Bombing. While John Coltrane’s “Alabama”, is universal in that it elicits the same response from both whites and blacks alike, Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam” was specifically written for a mainly black audience, as seen in the way that it hides the underlying meaning of the song with a light and upbeat melody. While a black man may listen to “Mississippi Goddam” and feel inspired to revolt, a white man may listen to the same song and be quite offended.

At that time, the members of the black community were greatly outraged and wanted revenge, but very few were willing to speak up and revolt against the white men. Even those who did have the courage to speak up did so subtly and in a way that disguised their ctual dissatisfaction, for fear that they would be arrested. It was for this reason that singers like Nina Simone wrote and performed upbeat songs, like “Mississippi Goddam,” that weaved the actual issue into the song, and allowed people to express their discontent with the world in a way that did not offend too explicitly.

The song is split into 5 parts, with the two most dark and demonic sections of the song “sandwiched” between the three bright and cheerful portions. When people first listen to the recording of Nina Simone singing “Mississippi Goddam,” it is so easy for hem to get caught up with the bouncy music and catchy beat of the song, that they might not stop to listen to the actual lyrics.

Even after listening to the song multiple times to the point where they can actually sing along to the song, many people still disregard the lyrics and do not notice underlying distressed cries such as “l can’t stand the pressure any longer / Somebody say a prayer” behind the cheerful music Simone is able to mask how irritated she actually is while still conveying how much she desires for change to be brought about. However useful this technique may be in isguising Simone’s rage towards white men, masking her intended message from the whites would not assist blacks in actually achieving freedom.

Sure, the song may encourage more blacks to speak up against whites, but that would not be enough to eliminate racial segregation completely. The only people who have the power to bring about that type of change to the community are white men in power, and from the way Simone blames them for “[thinking] crazy’ and tries to hide her resentment in “Mississippi Goddam,” it is obvious that Simone is in no way trying to appeal to the hite men in power (43).

From the lines “Oh but this country is full of lies / You’re all gonna die and die like flies” and the crescendo and increasing intensity in lines 41-48 and 75-82, it is obvious to both a black and white listener that the singer of this song is angry. However, while a white listener would only be able to understand the anger on a basic level, a black listener would hear the song and emotionally connect with the song. It is one thing for the listener to detect anger, and another for him to listen to the song and feel that anger boil up inside of him as well.

By listening to “Mississippi Goddam,” an average white person may easily detect Simone’s outrage, but it he most likely would not be able to fully understand the reason behind her rage, due to the fact that he has only experienced segregation from a white man’s perspective. He cannot relate to the song in a way that a black person could because was not affected by the bombing in the way that Simone was; he never went through her type of pain and suffering.

In this way, Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” is only effective in making the white population aware of the black people’s reactions, not so uch in persuading them to help bring about a sort of change to the black community. Like “Mississippi Goddam,” John Coltrane’s “Alabama” is also split up into sections. However, while “Mississippi Goddam” constantly Jumps back and forth from major to minor and changes in tone, “Alabama” remains in relatively the same key throughout all four sections of the entire piece.

During the first section of the song, Coltrane uses the consecutive playing of a single piano key to create a low rumbling underneath the saxophone’s melody. This section paints a vivid image of the four KKK members that Sunday morning, before the actual bombing occurred. During the first minute and forty-five seconds of the song, the bombers are meticulously planning out every detail of the scheme, getting ready for the big act. After the “main melody’ plays once at 1 :45, the song picks up its pace, and shifts to a more lively tempo.

It is here that the setting transitions from the bombers’ hideout to the church. While the bombers are scheming away, it is Just another Sunday at the church. People are Just minding their own business, and preparing for mass later on that day. No one has any idea of the plans that the members of the KKK have in store. At 2:40, there is another setting change, marked by a pause in the song, and at 2:45, section three of “Alabama” begins. Here, the low rumbling of the piano returns, only this time, it is accompanied not only by the melody of the saxophone, but also by the plucking of a bass.

The main melody of the song also appears again at the end of this section, but in this repetition, the melody is prolonged and played at a much slower tempo. Here, the bombers arrive at the scene of the crime and plant the o one bothers to notice the suspects. In the last forty-five seconds of the song, Coltrane utilizes all the instruments he had previously used to create a sort of chaotic finale for his song. From the drums at 4:30 to the intense saxophone solo and rush of cymbals at 4:50, Coltrane combines the sounds of all the instruments to make a catastrophic symphony of noise.

It is obvious that 4:28 to the end of the song, part four, is the epitome of the entire song and represents the actual moment when the bomb went off. After the climax, all that is left is the sound ofa few cymbals, which, fter a few seconds, subsides to silence. Unlike “Mississippi Goddam”, Coltrane’s entire song, “Alabama,” uses not a single word. By omitting lyrics from his song, Coltrane allows all his listeners to fully submerge themselves into the music and emotionally connect with the song.

Instead of Just stating opinions and elaborating on how bitter blacks feel against whites as Simone did in “Mississippi Goddam,” Coltrane uses his music to show his audience why blacks have such a great resentment towards whites. He gives an account of the event from the victim’s point of view and appeals to his listener’s emotions. Thanks to this technique, his listeners are all able to put themselves in the shoes of those who were affected by the tragedy and understand their emotional suffering, no matter their race.

This type of empathetic understanding allows the white listener to look at the situation from black person’s perspective and consider supporting him in the abolishment of segregation. Coltrane’s choice to not use words forces a sort of honesty into “Alabama” that is not present in “Mississippi Goddam. ” In “Mississippi Goddam,” the underlying message is quite evident, but only to those who are able to look past the heerful and exciting tune of the first section and understand the actual lyrics.

While “Mississippi Goddam” may come off to be more passionate in that it uses words and no pauses, that verbose passion is meaningless unless it helps to bring about a change to the black community. Even though Simone may express more feeling in her song, what matters is not how she expresses her reaction, but how her song affects the listener. Sure, she may express her opinions however she wishes, but if she is not able to move white men in power to respond in the way that she wants them to, then the entire performance and the song is pointless.

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