The song was inspired by the United States Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed racial segregation of public schools. The original folk song was first recorded by Sammy Davis Jr. in 1957. The original lyrics of the song opened with this verse, in reference to the court:
The reggae group Greyhound recorded and had a top ten UK hit with the song in 1971. Having heard the Greyhound version, which did not include the verse referring to the court, Three Dog Night included the song in their 1972 album, Seven Separate Fools. This version of the song peaked at number one on the U.S. pop chart on September 16, 1972; it also topped the U.S. adult contemporary chart for one week.