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Study Guide | Film

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Context
"I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved. Young people, black and white know this. That’s why they’re so involved in politics. We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped anymore. So I don’t think you have a choice anymore. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”
—Nina Simone

Nina Simone and the Civil Rights Movement

What follows is a timeline that interweaves Simone’s life and career with the historical events that unfolded throughout that time. This timeline can be used as a jumping off point for a classroom exploration of the civil rights movement, as well as an investigation of the role Simone played in the movement.

1896 Plessy v. Ferguson: the United States Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation under the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
1933 Nina Simone is born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21.
1936 At three years old, Eunice stars playing the piano by ear.
1943 Eunice gives her first piano recital at the Tryon Town Hall for a white audience. Her parents are told they must stand in the back. Eunice refuses to play until they are given seats in the front.
1950 Eunice graduates from high school and studies at the Juilliard School to prepare to apply to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her family relocates to Philadelphia, but Eunice is rejected from the school.
1954 Eunice takes a job as a singer and pianist at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City and gives herself the stage name “Nina Simone.”

Brown v. Board of Education declares segregated schools unconstitutional.
1955 African-American teenager Emmett Till is murdered by whites after allegedly flirting with a white woman in Mississippi.

Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on the local bus to a white man, prompting the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
1957 At the age 24, Simone comes to the attention of the record industry after submitting a demo of songs she recorded at a live performance in New Hope, PA. She is signed with Bethlehem Records.

Efforts to integrate Little Rock Central High School are met with violence and resistance in Arkansas. President Eisenhower sends in federal troops to protect the nine African-American students entering the high school.
1959 Simone moves to New York City and signs with Colpix Records. She releases her debut LP, The Amazing Nina Simone, and performs at Town Hall, her first major New York City venue.
1960 Simone’s career takes off with performances on NBC, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Newport Jazz Festival. A feature article is written about her in Time magazine.

Lunch counter sit-ins begin in Greensboro, NC, and spread throughout the South.

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is founded.
1961 The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organizes Freedom Rides to test federal court orders barring segregation on interstate transportation.
1962 Simone marries Andrew Stroud and he becomes her manager. Lisa Celeste Stroud is born. The family buys a home in Mt. Vernon next to Malcolm X.
1963 Simone gives her first solo performance at Carnegie Hall.

Over a quarter-of-a-million people participate in the March on Washington and hear Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary in Jackson, MS, is murdered by whites on June 12.

A Birmingham church is bombed on September 15 killing four African-American girls attending Sunday school.

In response to these events, Simone composes the song “Mississippi Goddam.”
1964 Simone becomes central to a circle of African-American playwrights, poets, and writers who are using their art forms to galvanize the civil rights movement.
1965 Simone’s friend and mentor, playwright Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun), dies from cancer at age 35. Nina will take the title of the last play Hansberry was writing, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, and adapt it into a powerful black empowerment anthem.

Simone performs “Mississippi Goddam” in Selma to honor the thousands gathered to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery.
1965 Simone’s friend and mentor, playwright Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun), dies from cancer at age 35. Nina will take the title of the last play Hansberry was writing, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, and adapt it into a powerful black empowerment anthem.

Simone performs “Mississippi Goddam” in Selma to honor the thousands gathered to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery.
1966 Simone’s friend, Stokely Carmichael, the head of SNCC, uses the phrase “black power” during a voter registration drive in Mississippi. This idea begins to divide the civil rights movement.
1967 Simone releases an album with RCA that includes the song “Backlash Blues,” based on a poem Langston Hughes gave to her—the last poem he submitted for publication prior to his death in May.

Sparked by a police raid on a black-power hangout, Detroit, MI erupts into the worst race riots in the nation. In the months that follow, race riots spread across the country.
1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated.

On the day of King’s funeral, Simone performs the song “Why? The King of Love is Dead,” written by her bass player Gene Taylor. The song is recorded and released as a single.
1969 Simone performs “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” at the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969.
1970 Frustrated with race relations in the US, Nina moves abroad. She will eventually settle in France, where she will remain until her death in 2003.

Discussion Questions

Discussion questions can be found in the Classroom Activities section. These allow for a deeper exploration of the film after the screening. In addition, many of the discussion questions can be used in debate activities or essay writing assignments.


Additional Resources for Teachers and Students

The Official Nina Simone Site

NBC Learn Finishing the Dream
In partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, NBC Learn brings the civil rights era to life with over 100 archival clips and original town hall conversations from around the country.

PBS Black Culture Connection
Comprehensive education resources and video clips for classroom use.

PBS African-American World
A timeline of the civil rights era with links to numerous online resources.

American Experience Eyes on the Prize Website
Video clips, images, music, and primary sources from the civil rights era.