This song is about the Little Rock Nine, the first black students to attend the segregated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. In 1957, after in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation, the nine students enrolled at the school. On the first day of school, they were met with angry protests and blocked by the Arkansas National Guard, as ordered by the governor. President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by sending federal troops to escort the students into the school three weeks later.
The vitriol the students faced for simply trying to attend an all-white school was shocking, and made national headlines. The incident galvanized the civil rights movement, which drew support from across the nation.
"Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)" was written by the Staple Singers patriarch Roebuck "Pops" Staples in reaction to the protests.
According to Mavis Staples, this song was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Four different versions of this song made the Hot 100 in 1967. The first version to chart was a live instrumental by Cannonball Adderley, who introduced it as a Staple Singers song and took it to #73 in April. The Staple Singers original was next to chart, reaching #95 in June. In July, the female vocal group The Sweet Inspirations made #57 and Bobby Powell reached #91.