Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons teaches about the civil rights movement from a first-hand perspective.
Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons’ office is tucked away in a corner on the first floor of Anderson Hall. Instead of walls, Simmons’s office is fortified with bookcases full of the literature of the civil rights movement; situated among the books is the red spine of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”
Simmons was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced “snick”), a student-led civil rights group that organized some of the first sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., and the Freedom Rides in Mississippi in the 1960s.
Today, Simmons — or Zoharah as she is called by peers and friends — is a professor of religion and African American Studies at UF, in the unique position of having participated in the movements she teaches about.
A Google search of Simmons’s name yields dozens of archived interviews. People from all over the country have wanted to hear her story. Yet it seems the enthusiasm with which she recalls her past has not diminished, but strengthened. She’s working on a book about her experience in the civil rights movement. Even on days she doesn’t teach class, she goes into her office on campus to write.
“Just have a seat, please,” she said. She shuffled the papers stacked high on her desk, and began to dutifully recount her start in the civil rights movement.
Memphis, Tenn., 1961. The Jim Crow South. Simmons was sixteen and out looking for a summer job in the commercial district on the white side of town.
Simmons later wrote in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts By Women in SNCC (2010) that the air was so “thick and humid you could have cut it with a knife.”
Simmons had cut out job listings from the town’s newspaper for offices and department stores, which she said were mainly directed toward Memphis’ white residents. But having taken a commercial course in high school, she thought she’d be qualified for work on the “nice” side of town. As she peered through the gleaming store fronts, she pictured herself getting one of these nice jobs.
Simmons was face to face with her town’s racism for the first time, and she began to feel like there was a target on her back.
“When I was a high school student, I had been protected in my community and in my home,” she said. “I never had to go out and face the White Southerner, where I wanted something from them.”
Simmons was turned away at three locations. They wouldn’t even let her begin to say why she might be qualified, she said. As soon as they saw her enter, their minds were made up. This kind of work wasn’t for black people, they told her. What what she thinking, coming over here in the first place?
As reality sunk in, rain came pouring down, soaking her as she angrily boarded the 31 Crosstown bus home. There was just a handful of black passengers seated at the back, where they were supposed to be, not looking for trouble, just an unbothered ride home. But Simmons, seething, confused, let down and dripping wet, decided for the first time in her life to sit in the front.
She knew what it meant to sit in the front like that. Yet it remains unexplained why the driver never made her pay for it. He had every right to have her arrested, but for some reason beyond her, he didn’t.
She made it home safe, that day forever lodged in her memory.
“It was the first time that I became really aware at a deep level what it meant to be black,” said Simmons. “That was a chain broken on my mind.”
A year later, Simmons began her first year of university at Spelman College, a black women’s college in Atlanta, as the civil rights movement was well underway. In Aug. 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer attempted to register to vote in Indianola, Mich., and was fired. In October, James Meredith enrolled in the University of Mississippi.
Simmons was the first in her family to attend college. They had high hopes for her academic success, and they urged her to stick to school and to church. They didn’t want her joining a movement that was potentially life-threatening.
“My grandmother even made me swear that I wasn’t going to get involved, ‘cause she was worried about it,” Simmons said. “I swore I had no intention; I was so thrilled to be in college.”
Devout Baptists, Simmons’ family insisted she join a local church as soon as she could her freshman year. In retrospect, this backfired. That church, mere steps from Spelman, the West Hunter Street Baptist Church, where Simmons saw Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak for the first time. In a way, church became a cover for her burgeoning role as student activist, Simmons said.
“I heard King teach our congregations about the duty of
“There were all these young people my age, who were putting everything on the line, and felt that I too had to do my part.”
the citizen, most particularly the black citizen, to demand justice and fairness from her country …, to stand up and be counted as the children of God who were deserving of all the rights due to us as humans,” she wrote in a 2008 journal article titled “Martin Luther King Jr. Revisited.”
The administration at Spelman actively urged its scholastic young ladies to stay on campus and away from the movement. Yet Spelman, in the buzzing heart of Atlanta, was fertile ground for SNCC recruiters. Simmons said they’d shout in the middle of campus that students were shielded by their lifeless books, reading history while SNCC lived it.
Despite the Spelman administration, civil rights filtered into the classroom, too. Two white, radical historians taught at Spelman: Dr. Staughton Lynd and Howard Zinn.
Simmons looked up to them. They introduced her to literatures and radical thought she was not exposed to as a child, certainly not from her family. Both Lynd and Zinn worked for SNCC, and they encouraged her to join.
“When I joined the movement, clearly, it was like ‘I got to be a part of this,’ in spite of my grandmother, my mother, my father, the school,” she said. “There [were] all these young people my age, who were putting everything on the line, and felt that I too had to do my part.”
SNCC was a part of a broader cultural shift that emerged among the nation’s fervent youth. There was no leader and no centrality; none of the suits and planned appearances of a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“A lot of us younger people, the rowdy students, we were very different from King and his group,” Simmons said.
Dr. King and the SCLC were deeply Christian. They preached about nonviolence and nobly loving the enemy from a place of compassion, love and peace.
“Whereas in SNCC, you know, we might just get real quiet when they would start that,” Simmons said.
By the second semester of freshman year, Simmons was attending SNCC’s meetings. By year two, she was participating in demonstrations and campaigning. She was arrested for her activism for the first time after a demonstration in a restaurant owned by Lester Maddox, who was notorious for only serving whites. Simmons spent the night in the county jail.
“This too,” she later wrote, “was a first in my family.”
Simmons said she would have died of fright if she’d been in jail alone. But luckily she was with fellow SNCC members, and they sang songs to keep their spirits high until their release the following morning.
By the summer of 1964, Simmons’ involvement had escalated along with the movement. She found herself in racism’s pith in Laurel, Mississippi as a project director for SNCC’s 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. The lead position opened up by chance, after Laurel law enforcement immobilized the original leader Lester McKinney for an old warrant.
Mississippi Freedom Summer had three goals: register voters, establish the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and run the Freedom Schools, SNCC’s effort to educate K-12 children in basic school subjects like math and english. But the curriculum also meant giving people a practical education in government and the truth of African American history. The schools were meant to be an alternative locus of information, counter to what many African Americans had heard growing up in an oppressive sharecropping system.
Broadly speaking, Simmons and SNCC were attempting to rewire the South’s motherboards, because decades of deprivation had led people toward what is called “internalized racism.”
“It’s such a deep psychological thing, for a group of people to free themselves,” she said. “Living in a white supremacist society, we didn’t love ourselves. We had sort of been taught to hate ourselves.”
In a way, the project forced her to become an adult. At age 19, Simmons not only marched as part of the movement, led an integral part of it as a project director. She had to learn to command large groups of people, to speak with conviction, fire them up and keep them determined after yet another setback.
And it was dangerous. The Ku Klux Klan firebombed several of SNCC’s office buildings and one of its Freedom School libraries. Simmons herself was held at gunpoint by a Laurel sheriff as she led a line of demonstrators to a sit-in.
After the 6-weeks, most volunteers left Mississippi and returned home. But Simmons stayed, continuing to work in the state for a total of 18-months. She didn’t leave until her executive secretary, seeing that Simmons was exhausting herself, ordered her to.
Simmons continued to work with SNCC for several years after, travelling as a spokeswoman with the Freedom Singers, a musical group formed to fundraise around the country.
At the end of the decade, as SNCC began to dissolve, Simmons contemplated going back to school to finish her degree. But Spelman had distanced itself from many of the radical students and faculty that had gotten swept up in the movement. School would have to wait. Simmons would not complete her bachelor’s degree until 1988, from Antioch University.
She continued her work in activism, travelling across the globe to war-torn countries of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand to provide humanitarian relief with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker peace and justice organization. In 1996, Simmons returned to academia to complete a dissertation on Islamic law and its impact on women’s lives, the subject she teaches today.
Paul Ortiz, director of UF’s Samuel Proctor Oral History, has worked extensively with Simmons after she started teaching religion at UF. He said that for Simmons, and other SNCC activists of the movement, their drive came from a place that not only wanted change but wanted to elevate those around them by letting them tell their stories.
“If you want to talk to someone about the meaning of freedom,” he said “you know what does freedom mean? You talk to someone who has been a slave.”
As a professor, Simmons works to develop the minds of her students the way her teachers at Spelman did for her. In the classroom and, even still, on the streets of Gainesville she remains to protest, speak out and prompt others to also.
“I’ve never seen her grab the mic from anyone. She’s the person that wants you to be in front, telling your story,” Ortiz said. “They have this incredibly democratic ideology. It’s a whole culture of organizing.”
By listening, Simmons said, you become friends with people who appear to be different from yourself. “You find out they really aren’t–they’re not different from you when it comes to the insides.”
“People want the same thing,”she said. “They want to be treated with respect, they want dignity, they want to be able to live where they’re somewhat comfortable, with food and clothing and shelter.”
Kathie Sarachild, a former SNCC activist and friend of Simmons, in Mississippi that same summer. She said she knows how frightening it was to go in to Laurel the way Simmons did and the audacity it took. She can still see that audacity in Simmons today.
“I think when people decide that they’re not going to be afraid, their minds expand and a light goes on that’s visible to everybody,” Sarachild said. “And it probably never goes out.” •