Dan Berger’s book, Stayed on Freedom: the Long History of Black Power Through One Family’s Journey, tells the story about the fight against racism in all its blatant and hideous forms. It’s about spiritual quests, and the work of real organizing and what can be created through it. It’s a story of love, of political struggle in some of the darkest, most terrifying corners of the civil rights movement.
Marc Steiner interviews the book’s author, Dan Berger, along with Dr. Zoharah Simmons and Michael Simmons, whose stories are featured in Stayed on Freedom. Dr. Zoharah Simmons, a veteran of SNCC and of the Black Power Anti-Women’s Movement in the 1960s, is a professor emerita from University of Florida. Michael Simmons has been a domestic international human rights activist for 60 years with SNCC, and is the director of European Programs with the American Friends Service Committee.
Studio: David Hebden, Adam Coley, Darian Jones
Post-Production: Eli Ben-Yaacov
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show. I’m Marc Steiner at The Real News, and it’s good to have you all with us. A book came across my desk that really caught my attention, it was called: Stayed on Freedom: the Long History of Black Power Through One Family’s Journey. And it turned out to be a page turner. And the lives of the two people whose story it tells have had a life’s journey that is worth being told. It’s a story of love, of political struggle in some of the darkest, most terrifying corners of the Civil Rights Movement. With a story of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC, as it’s properly known. And it winds its way to many political struggles: the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalist Movements, imprisonment, crossing the globe, in and out of the American Friends Service Committee, and many other groups.
It’s about the fight against racism in all its blatant and hideous, hidden forms. It’s about spiritual quests through Islam and more, and the work of real organizing and what can be created through it. And it’s about a passionate love between two people and an undying friendship and comradeship that comes out of that love and each other. And in the end, raises so many questions about what we face now and where we’re going as a society and a world.
Now, our guests today are Dan Berger, who actually wrote the book. He’s professor of Comparative and Ethnic Studies and associate dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies – That’s a mouthful – At University of Washington. And his previous book is Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era.
And the two whose lives fought for our future, whose story was told in Stayed on Freedom: Dr. Zoharah Simmons is a professor emerita from University of Florida, where she taught African American, Religious, and Women’s Studies. She’s a veteran of SNCC and of the Black Power women’s anti-war movements in the 1960s. And she’s a founding member of the National Council of Elders and a board member of the SNCC Legacy Project.
Michael Simmons also has been in a lot of those groups, and has been a domestic international human rights activist for 60 years with SNCC and later as director of European programs, the American Friends Service Committee. And his work took him to Africa, Asia, Europe, in the Middle East. For 18 years he co-founded and ran the Raday Salon, which is an independent human rights organization in Budapest, Hungary. And he saw courses in African American history and US elections at the College of McDaniel College.
So folks, welcome, good to have you with us.
Dan Berger: So glad to be here. Thank you.
Marc Steiner: That introduction, I do have time to talk [all laugh], but it is good to have you all with this. And Dan, let me begin with you, just because I’m curious for our listeners and viewers to take us to the place that started this book and how you met these two people.
Dan Berger: So I’ve always been interested in history. I became an activist when I was in high school, but I didn’t really have a sense of what to do and how to do it.
Marc Steiner: You got a loan there, by the way [laughs].
Dan Berger: Yeah, certainly. So I arrived at the University of Florida as a student, as a freshman in the fall of 1999, it was the same year that Zoharah got there as a professor. And she was speaking in another class. And I was blown away by what she shared about her experience in the Civil Rights Movement and what she shared about her own upbringing, which I’m sure she’ll talk about. But growing up with as close a connection to enslavement as someone could have in the 1940s, growing up in the ’40s and ’50s. And beyond what I learned from her story, it really inspired me to do my own, go to the library, get all these books about civil rights and Black Power histories. And was just really struck by the gap between some of what she was sharing about her experience in the movement and some of what had been recorded.
And after college, I moved to Philadelphia, and I met Michael, and it was sort of the same thing all over again. And so we’ve known each other now more than 20 years and have had these conversations informally as friends and comrades over the years. But about 2016, I asked them about telling their story together. And part of what I wanted to do was honor and recognize that a lot of people who joined movements of the ’60s are still at it. When we parse things out as that was the ’60s, or that was then, we miss the array of organizations and dedication and experimentation that people are still doing.
Marc Steiner: As a lot of us used to say, it’s not done until you’re done [laughs].
Dan Berger: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s right. Exactly. And I think between the two of them, Michael grew up in the North, Zoharah grew up in the South, you mentioned it in your introduction, some of the different organizations and tendencies they’re part of. And these are things that are so often treated separately, but actually lived together, not only within the Black Power movement, but really lived together in this one family.
Marc Steiner: In this one family. It’s an incredible story. Let me just start this way, to give the folks watching, listening a sense of where people come from. Zoharah, you grew up in what I like to call North Mississippi, in Memphis. So talk a bit about, in the very beginning, where you grew up and how that led you to become this activist in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Zoharah Simmons: Yes, thank you so much for the question. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. And the saying was that the Mississippi Delta began on the main street of Memphis, Tennessee, so you got that right. And it was Jim Crow all the way. And I grew up in the Black community. And at that point, because of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the Black community was very diverse economically. My family, working class people, had not finished, in the case of my dad and mom, high school, my grandmother, sixth grade. But nonetheless, education was so important, and I was told from the earliest times that I was going to college, that I was going to be somebody, but they too were somebody. And I knew that because of their involvement in church and the community and all of that.
But as I was saying, it was diverse. And so while we were poor – I grew up in a three-room shotgun house with a toilet, initially, on the back porch – There were people, my principal of my high school lived right around the corner in a stone house with beautiful stone floors. And the doctor, the dentist, many of my teachers lived in what I considered beautiful homes then and had cars. So I knew that “education” could certainly change your economic status, but we all were victims of the Jim Crow, and clearly could be killed if you stepped out of line.
And I was told that all of my growing up, stay on your side, so to speak, of the road, don’t challenge it. But at the same time, my grandmother was a voter, because in Memphis Black people could vote. And she was serious about voting, and had registered as soon as women had the right to vote and was very proud of that, and tried to get everybody on our street to vote. And whenever the white people running for office – And only whites could run for office at that time – She and my grandfather went to church to hear what they had to say.
And then after the candidates would leave, all the church folks would huddle to say, now which one of them is going to be bad for us? Or even more bad [all laugh]? Because everybody was clear that they were all bad, but which one might be less bad than the other? So I was there, my grandmother took me to all these meetings and took me with her to the polls when she went to vote, when she was knocking on doors trying to tell people they needed to vote to make things better, et cetera. Also, all Black schools and everything Black except when you needed to go downtown to pay your light bill, gas and water bill, that kind of thing. And that’s when you had to be careful.
So this is what I grew up with. I saw the Emmett Till photos in the Jet magazine, the centerfold. And I was so taken with the fact that here was somebody just a couple of years older than me who had been killed maybe a hundred miles from where I was living for supposedly whistling at a white girl. And I found when I had joined SNCC that many of my comrades had all been moved. We called ourselves the Emmett Till Generation. And I remember thinking, I’m going to do something about this, this is outrageous, and we have to change it no matter how much my folks were saying, these people will kill you if you try to change it. It was like, they’re killing us anyway. So that’s how I grew up. It was a warm and wonderful community, a wonderful school, but at the same time, around us, we knew danger lurked if we stepped out of line.
Marc Steiner: And Michael, your roots are South, but you grew up in Philly?
Michael Simmons: Yes, I grew up in Philadelphia, and it was much different from what Zoharah is describing her reality to be. The issues of racism were not really prominent in my mind because I didn’t have any language for it, because I went to integrated schools, but we lived in segregated neighborhoods. So I did not engage with my classmates after school, just during school. But at the time I never gave it much thought, it was just the way it was. I lived on a very small street, and we had a couple, one, two, three senior citizens, whites, who we collectively looked after because they were elderly. There was no, again, them being white was just an objective reality, but it meant nothing to me. And they were very nice. One was an alcoholic, we kind of talked about him [others laugh]. But the point is that he didn’t hurt anybody, he just drank.
And there were two sisters that, in the parlance of those days, were called old maids, and who ironically came from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where I wound up being in jail at. And then a German woman who was just the salt of the earth, as far as I’m concerned, in terms of how nice she was. The point is that I really did not… Anything I experienced, it never occurred to me that it was racism, I mean, problems that I had, some problems in school in terms of challenging authority, but again, it never occurred to me in racial terms. And I went to high school, integrated high school, Blacks and whites. And again, any conflicts were not treated in racial terms, as I perceived them. So that my childhood was nowhere near as traumatic as Zoharah, but our commonality was Emmett Till. I was only 10 years old when that happened, but I can still remember looking at those pictures.
And not just looking at those pictures, but because I was one of those Northern folks whose parents were from the migration, the Great Migration, who spent time in the South. So I would go to Macon and Augusta, Georgia, Rock Hill, South Carolina. And my cousins used to tell me the same thing that Zoharah’s parents told her. But coming from my reality, I just sloughed it off. I said, oh man, come on, we need white folks. I said, hey, I’m not scared of these people. And I never had any… And then when Emmett Till occurred, it just shocked me. And then two years later, Little Rock, Arkansas, in terms of the school integration struggle. So at that point, I knew there was something different about the South. And then as I got a little older, the words of Malcolm X began to make me realize that there was something different about being an African American in white society. But that’s a synopsis of my being, yes.
Marc Steiner: I’m going to come back to Malcolm, we have a chance to do that a little bit later, because that’s an interesting piece of life too with everybody here. So both of you ended up in SNCC and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee went South, or you just went over it a little bit, but you, Michael went South. So let me try again with Dan and we can just make and just jump in as well. I’ll call on y’all, but just jump in. So you met these folks 20-some years ago. And as I said to you before, this is really an amazingly well-written book, it just keeps you reading, reading, reading, which is unlike many academics and how they write.
Dan Berger: Yeah. Thank you.
Marc Steiner: I’m curious how it affected you when you began reading what Michael and Zoharah went through in the South, in the Civil Rights Movement. I mean, you may have read books before, but you’re young, so you were in that, right?
Dan Berger: Yeah, sure.
Marc Steiner: So talk a bit about that, and then I want to get the experiences from them.
Dan Berger: Some of these were stories that I had heard well before I started on the book, so some of it was familiar to me in that sense. And I think being in college in Florida, you’re very aware of where you are, I guess I would say. And Gainesville is a progressive, relatively progressive bubble compared to its surroundings. But still you can tell which houses were the old planter money houses.
But part of what always resonated for me about both of their stories is, being on the left myself, being involved in different campaigns and different struggles. And so I think there’s something about, you can relate to what other organizers go through when you hear about challenges of getting people to the meeting or trying to go from one action to the other. But then to hear about, particularly when Zoharah was talking with me or with others, or researching for the book about her time in Mississippi both during Freedom Summer and after. About having to first learn how to drive and then outrace the klan. About having to carry a gun with her at times or otherwise be under the armed protection of locals in the community, in Laurel, Mississippi.
Michael shares a story in the book about going to get his car fixed and the person at the auto shop. So he pulls out a gun because he recognized the car as a SNCC car. Just the intimate and constant confrontation with violence, and potentially lethal violence, as just a constant companion is not something that I have ever experienced in my political life. And to be, at the time when I was first hearing these stories, I was the same age that Zoharah was at that time, 19, 20 years old. I’ve marched against neo-Nazis, whatever. There were some moments, but violence was never a constant companion in that way.
Marc Steiner: So Zoharah, let me again, and please both of you just jump in, Michael. But in the book – And I want to give people a sense of this because I think many people don’t really get how dangerous and frightening it was to be a civil rights worker in the South in the ’60s. They know people did it, they know they had to break the back of segregation. But there’s the constant fear that people lived with, never knowing what’s going to happen next when you’re registering people to vote. What’s going to happen next when you’re trying to get things started and start Freedom Schools. So talk a little about that, because the stuff you went through, the fear you faced was pretty intense, and I think that was emblematic of what a lot of people went through in the Civil Rights Movement.
Zoharah Simmons: Oh, yes, unquestionably. And let me tell you, because I had grown up with a grandmother who told me from my earliest memories that Mississippi was the worst place for Black people in the world. And she did everything she could to try to keep me from joining the movement and going to Mississippi. And her words were ringing in my ears all the time. She said, they’re going to kill up a bunch of y’all down there. Are you crazy? And so when I drove to Mississippi with my two comrades who had been assigned to Laurel, Mississippi, I was terrified. And because of the horror stories that I had been taught growing up, I slept from Ohio to Mississippi. And I kept asking my comrades, I said, tell me when we crossed the line into Mississippi, wake me up.
And I don’t know what I was expecting, I guess goblins and monsters to be hanging from trees. But nonetheless, it was scary. And I lived with a family for the 18 months that I was there, a Mrs. Z. Burter-Sphinx and her husband and her teenage son. And many nights she would sit with lights out and a shotgun across her lap. So she would tell us, because people had been calling, threatening. She said, you can rest, because I’m watching. And she would sit up all night with her gun, because she said, I’m going to protect you all. And this was incredible. This is a 50-plus year old woman. We were the first building that we were finally able to get a Black landowner to rent to us, which was a boarded up old building that we had to renovate to turn into our Freedom School and our offices.
That was burned to the ground with all of our books, and the fire department was parked watching it burn to the ground. They never tried to put it out. I have been chased by people, white men with gun racks in the back of their truck. And as Dan mentioned, I had just learned to drive. So driving at top speeds, trying to get inside the city limits, it was terrifying, and many were killed. I had met James Cheney, I had met Andrew Goodman at the orientation session. They left a week before I did. And to know that they were already missing, and as everybody in SNCC said, they’re dead. Don’t believe anybody who’s saying that they went off somewhere. They have been killed along with Shawna.
So this was hanging over our heads constantly, that death was stalking us. And they had said to us, they would kill any of us coming in there trying to register people to vote. Yet the local people who lived there, they were the ones who knew better than we did how dangerous it was. But nonetheless, they were willing to step up to try to register to vote, to help us with creating a Freedom School and creating the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. These were the brave people, because I could jump on a Greyhound bus and run on home, but they were putting their lives, their jobs, their houses on the line, as Mrs. Sphinx did, it was a scary time.
Marc Steiner: You could run away. But this point out in the book, you didn’t run away.
Zoharah Simmons: I didn’t run away, but –
Marc Steiner: You did not run away. And the stress was so intense for you that people wanted you to go away just to save your mind and soul and your body.
And Michael, so you’re a Philly guy, you’re not? And ended up going down South to Arkansas, which I always thought about as one of the… It’s always been like this, of all the states, it’s really a bastion of whiteness [Marc and Michael laugh].
Michael Simmons: Yeah, to go look at this, the points that Zoharah was making from another level. I’m just drawing myself a note here. To look at that Dan made a reference to something that occurred to me that, to make a long story short, I had gone to an auto parts store in a place called Helena, Arkansas, which is where I was working. And I might add Helena, Arkansas, was in the same county, Elaine, Arkansas, where there had been a pogrom of African Americans in 1919 that people would talk about as if it occurred yesterday. I had never heard of it at that point.
But when I went to return this part, no protesting, no nothing, just a commercial transaction, the store owner happened to mention a comrade’s name, named Bill Hansen, who had married an African American woman, and it became a statewide issue – Statewide, not local. State.
And so the store owner said, ain’t that Hansen’s car. And as he said it, he reached under the counter. And instinctively I turned around, and these men were converging on me. And I burst out of the store, jumped in the car, and I was starting the car, I was leaning over. It was like a movie, literally. I was sitting over trying to start the car, nervous, scared everything all at once. And the guy came to the door and pointed the gun, I don’t know if he was going to shoot it, he didn’t shoot it. But he pointed the gun, and so I got off. So I went back to my comrades in SNCC, and they said, well, we got to report this.
So by the time I got to the… And I can’t recall, but the sheriff’s office or local police to report it, he had gotten down there and they arrested me for disturbing the… I forgot what the charges were. But he accused me of something. And I got convicted and spent 30 days… Well, it was a 30-day suspended sentence if I left the state, which I didn’t do, but that’s what [Marc laughs]… But here’s the kicker, and this is what I think people need to understand, because I say this because SNCC would go to the FBI to chronicle these kinds of things. The FBI made it very clear and said, look, we don’t know what we’re going to be able to do with this legally, but we want to keep a record of it. So I went to the FBI person in Little Rock, his name, believe it or not, was Agent Smart, you can find this in the archives.
Dan Berger: I read that, it cracked me up. Agent Smart.
Marc Steiner: No, it’s funny.
Michael Simmons: It was. And he was the nicest. Had a few hours of conversation, talked about my upbringing, my mother, parents, everything. I felt so encouraged by the discussion. And that happened around July, August of ’65. Fast-forward to a couple months later in Forest City, Arkansas, where we had had a protest demonstration that led to a couple hundred people being arrested trying to integrate schools. We were in the Freedom House, that’s what we call our residency, planning strategy one night. And the police came to this place called Forest City. And they banged on the door, there’s about 15 or 20 police looking for some SNCC leaders who weren’t there, they were looking for John Lewis and Julian Bond.
And so there was a white woman SNCC worker in the place with us, about eight or nine of us. And we stuffed her in the closet, said, look, just be quiet. And they put us up against the wall, assuming the position, as I call it. And the cops come in and who do I see in the back but Agent Smart, who I’d just talked to a couple months earlier, my “friend”. So I have my hands in the air and I look over my shoulder. And I said, Agent Smart, I… And before I could complete this sentence, he said, shut up you Black MF and get up against that wall. Well, I was like, what?
Dan Berger: Reality check.
Michael Simmons: Now I tell that story because I always tell people, what do you do when you can’t call the police? And that’s what, in terms of how Zoharah grew up, and other people that I was working with lived, what do you do, or when the problem is the police? And so that’s another level of having to deal, to live under that violence that Zoharah was talking about. And that it was just all encompassing, all consuming. And they didn’t allow us a way out. So yeah, that’s a quick synopsis of many stories there.
Marc Steiner: The reference in the book, did you –
Dan Berger: Well, one thing I appreciate about that story, which is also in the book, and the way that I write about it in the book, is that it gets at that all encompassing violence as Michael was talking about. But it’s also that shock of recognition, as he was saying, like, oh, the police are the problem. This guy was pretending to be my friend, is obviously not. And part of what I wanted to accomplish in the book and what I hope that the book does is this ever-growing series of realizations that I think is the journey of an organizer. And I think both Zoharah and Michael’s stories start very local and become regional, become national, become global. And that ever-growing sense of new questions to ask in new places, I think is part of what it means to build a life on the left.
Marc Steiner: And that’s a really important point, and I want to get there quickly because I think the subtext of this book, to me, there are two subtexts of this book, several of them actually. One is that that is organizing. And Zoharah, Michael as organizers and how that was their life and work, period, in whatever organization they were in, we want to get into that. And the other part was their love and the relationship and how it intertwined even when they were together and when they weren’t together, that it was always there. And how it ended up in this place we are today. So make this very quick, maybe see if you remember, Dan and Zoharah, but we can leap in case you didn’t tell the truth [Marc and Dan laugh]. Because we have to tell the love story. We don’t have to make it long [laughs], but we have to tell the love story.
Dan Berger: Yeah, I mean, to me, the reason why I see this book as the love story is not just the love the Michael and Zoharah have for each other, but that to be an organizer in the particular way that they are, to be forever in the grassroots, I think is a position of love. Because you’re fighting not only with people you know and in various ways, and the new people you meet, as you already heard, the way that Zoharah talks about Mrs. Sphinx, that relationship, there’s such deep love on both sides there. But also fighting for people you’ve never met and fighting people you never will meet. And the level of sacrifice and dedication and determination of which we’ve only heard a snippet in our conversation so far. What else is that but love? So I think that, to me, is the overarching framework.
And I think that there’s that famous quote from Che about, to be a revolutionary is to be guided by great feelings of love. And so I want to take that seriously. And I think the kinds of questions that they ask, the way that they extend themselves to people in other parts of the world continually as a process, I think to me, I wanted to see that as love, I want us to see that as love.
For the two of them. I was very excited to be at the archives at the Schomburg Center in New York going through SNCC files and to find the meeting minutes of the SNCC national meeting when they met in 1965 on my birthday, before I was born, but on the day I was born, the date. And they were both there pushing SNCC to adopt a statement against the US War in Vietnam, and really against US imperialism more broadly. And the fact that they were on the same side in that position and where they met, it was an early moment of connection, and they continued to be on the same side of things in SNCC. The book talks about their work in Atlanta with what was then called the Atlanta Project of SNCC.
But for myself, for so many other people, you meet the great loves of your life doing organizing. It’s not just this separate thing that, okay, I’m a businessman during the day, but then I might do some organizing on the side, these things are separate. No, it’s all together. And so the fact that they met and fell in love in the movement, I think, is a movement story. And the movement is based on love.
Marc Steiner: Absolutely.
Dan Berger: And so of course interpersonal love would come there as well.
Marc Steiner: A movement love story. And there were many of them, but this was really well done and really well written, and theirs was beautiful.
So let me leap into something here. When SNCC changed, and I wasn’t there, I was a young civil rights worker in my teens in Baltimore and Cambridge, Maryland, McGlory Richardson, so we were in a different place. But I remember the vote, that was where all the Black folks in SNCC voted for the whites to go out, do something else, to leave and go organize white people. I think the vote was like, if I remember, 19 to 18 or something like that, it was close.
Dan Berger: Yeah.
Marc Steiner: And with a bunch of abstentions and the white people not voting. And that changed the entire nature of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It changed the nature of the Civil Rights Movement in many ways at that moment. I remember when it happened, when I was there, when we talked about it in the Freedom House in Cambridge, it was like, we were all… It was a very tense moment, going, what does that mean? Where do we go? But what it did was, this is when a new part of the circle started, this is where Stokely Carmichael and Black Power began. This is where the nationalist movement began to take hold, given all the contradictions in American society and depth of racism. So let’s pick up there. Because you wrote about that intensely. And Michael and Zoharah, you were in the middle of it, and it affected you all deeply, and you went into the different nationalist movements and the Nation of Islam. So let’s jump off here.
Dan Berger: Sure. Well, I know that Michael and Zoharah will have a lot to say, but let me just step back a little bit to say, that vote, Black Power was already happening –
Marc Steiner: Oh, yes. Yes, right.
Dan Berger: So prior to that vote. So it’s not where it begins, but it comes out of ongoing conversations. And the Atlanta Project of SNCC was really a key foundational catalyst for a number of those conversations. And not just the catalyst, it was coming from their own reflections as organizers in Atlanta. And this, I think, is a really key part of the book, because if you pick up any book about SNCC and nearly any book about the Civil Rights Movement, you’ll see a lot of unkind things said about the Atlanta Project. But also, you’ll see a number of untrue things said about the Atlanta Project. Just factually untrue. So I think this book is really the first to tell a fuller and different story of the Atlanta Project and of its role in the development of Block Power. I remember meeting Zoharah when I was an undergrad and hearing her talk about what Black Power was and what the motivation was in a way that made a lot of sense to me then and seemed very different from how it was described. And so I’m eager to bring them into the conversation.
But the last thing I’ll say is that it wasn’t just the white people who abstained from that vote, which is again, how it’s often told, it was also the members of the Atlanta Project. And I think that changes the whole story, because if it’s only the white people who abstained, then, well, they didn’t want to complicate things by voting against their own “expulsion” from the organization. But when you see that the people who were blamed for the results of the vote also didn’t vote for it, but enough people did that it passed, you see that these ideas of Black Power and the ideas that white people needed to go build an anti-racist constituency so that Black communities couldn’t be the only constituency if we want to end racism. That had wider sway, wider currency within SNCC than is often acknowledged.
Marc Steiner: Absolutely. I see a really important point in the history of the movement and history of this country and how things changed. And it’s much maligned, but it’s complex, and we had it. And what you tried to do in the book – And Zoharah, Michael, jump in – It was the complexity that I think that we got into, and complexity for you all as well. It said it wasn’t just as simplistic, oh, we hate white people, get the hell out moment, it was much deeper than that.
Dan Berger: That’s right.
Michael Simmons: That’s the point, I think. Zoharah, If you don’t mind, let me just go pick up, because I want to go back to that issue of love.
Marc Steiner: I’m not going to get between you and Zoharah, you go ahead [laughs].
Michael Simmons: In terms of time, because Black Power, throughout the narrative – In fact this morning I heard an interview we were talking about before we started this program where the author of a new book on Black Power talked about it in just negative terms, it’s like Black Power threw John Lewis out of the SNCC, threw the white people out of SNCC, helped to create the Ronald Reagan movement. But it’s all discussed in negative terms. And that when we look at the reality of Black Power, if you go back to the late ’60s and move into the ’70s, you can visually, without having any documentation, just look at pictures, what Black Power did for Black people. We started wearing our hair long. I grew up being told that I had bad hair, that we kept it very short. And now it’s short because I’m old [Marc laughs], but we kept it, so we kept it very short. In fact, we were ashamed of it. Flat noses, big lips, dark skin, Africa, anything associated with Africa. I can remember almost sliding in my chair in school when something about Africa would come up so people wouldn’t associate me with it.
So then, almost overnight, Black people were wearing dashikis or were growing their hair as long as they could, African American women were wearing Afros. It was such a positive element just culturally, not even dealing with the politics, but just culturally in the African American community. But when you look at the historiography of it, it’s just created a disheartful thing that descended upon Black America. So I just want to say that, in terms of Dan’s formulation of love in the context, the expansive context, that Black Power was the height of expression of love for and of African Americans towards each other. Go ahead Zoharah, I just wanted to make that point.
Dan Berger: Yeah, absolutely.
Zoharah Simmons: Yeah, I totally, totally, totally, totally agree. And you’ve said it, but self-love. But to go back to how the Atlanta Project began its development of what The New York Times called the SNCC position paper on Black Power, we were working there in Atlanta and Vine City, which was possibly the poorest, most rundown area in Atlanta. And this was where the Julian Bond reelection campaign headquarters had been set up. And here were all of the direst indices of Black poverty and poor housing, poor schools, et cetera, et cetera. So this is where we were working. But all of us who had worked in the movement knew that, often, Black people, if there were white people in the movement, they treated them totally differently than they treated the Black volunteers and Black workers. There was this sense that if you were white, you were the leader.
And so here I was the project director in Laurel. And if I’m in the office and one of the white volunteers happens to be there and a local comes in, the local person looks at me, looks at the white person and assumes, well, you must be in charge. And so you walk to the white person to ask for whatever it is you came there for. And this was something that a number of us had experienced. We were very concerned that Black people had to see this movement as their movement. And as Dan has mentioned, the whole issue of Black people alone cannot change racism in America. So who is organizing in the white community? And so it wasn’t about throwing people out, as has been told, it was about getting our white comrades to go into the white community, face the dangers there of trying to organize. And there was, we used to call it the White Folks Project that was formed. And a number of our comrades, including Bob Zelner, went to the white community to organize. And in many cases they were run out of town when the white community realized that they were civil rights workers.
So this is very complex, as you say. And given that if you were a Black American growing up where you hated anything Black, you hated Africa. If you call somebody Black, it could start a fight. If you call somebody African, it could start a fight. This had to be uprooted and disposed of. And so as Michael has said, it took off like wildfire, from Stokley Carmichael in Greenwood, Mississippi saying Black Power and all these kids jumping up and down, “Black Power, Black Power!” It just took off like wildfire because this was something the people needed so badly. So it wasn’t hate for white, it was love of self for the first time. And I could go on and on, as a dark-skinned Black woman, what that meant to me to even begin to think that I, too, was beautiful, or that my hair was not bad, or that the fact that my nose is broad is not bad, on and on and on. So I really hate that so much animosity has been directed to say that Black Power destroyed the Civil Rights Movement. There’s nothing further from the truth.
Marc Steiner: That’s really powerfully said. So that became a fait accompli, and it was a slow moving process, didn’t happen overnight. Many people, Black and white, folks left, many Black folks in SNCC also left and went off to do different things, both of you did as well in this. I’m sorry, we were going to say something, Zoharah?
Zoharah Simmons: I sort of chuckled and said we were fired [all laugh].
Michael Simmons: Let me just say, I mean, this is kind of inside –
Dan Berger: Baseball.
Michael Simmons: Baseball. But what I realized in retrospect is that when you have something as dramatic as that vote represented in terms of a fundamental shift in the organization, then what should have gone along with that was a change in leadership. Because you can’t have, it would be like… Perhaps an extreme example, but Donald Trump implementing Obama’s program. Or Donald Trump implementing Biden’s program, because the Atlanta Project that was not vying for power, we weren’t trying to become the leaders of SNCC, we were just trying to change the direction of the organization. It never occurred to us to look at the leadership after that vote. We just assumed that that vote would just set the course of action. And there was a lot of resistance in the leadership after that vote to the implications of the vote, which, as Zoharah said, finally led to us being asked to leave. But I look at that in hindsight, because at the time it never even occurred to me to think about having any official role in the overall leadership of SNCC, or any of us having any role.
Zoharah Simmons: No.
Marc Steiner: And by this time, the two of you were already in love and together, you were a couple.
Michael Simmons: Right.
Marc Steiner: And the love story about how you slowly, slowly, slowly [laughs] merge into a couple, I think is a really beautiful love story. And even to the fact that you are now, as I am, in our 70s, and you are still close friends and all that, that just says a lot about the power of what the two of you have, it really does.
But then you all took a different path, and other things were happening. And when I read in the book about all the… We’re going to cut this part out as I shuffle these stupid papers. How everybody from Ralph Abernathy, to Malcolm X, to Alice Walker, Vincent Harding, walked through your lives, literally walked through your lives. To me, it made me think of the Forrest Gump movie [laughs].
Michael Simmons: I’ve called myself that over the years, I said, I feel like Forrest Gump.
Marc Steiner: But that actually happened. So the pull that brought you and the contradictions you found, let’s just take for a moment the pull that brought you when you went back North. The pull that pulled you into both not just the Black Nationalist movement, but also the Nation of Islam, Zoharah especially, and what that meant and what change was going on that brought you to that place. Zoharah, why don’t you start that at me because your sojourn with the NOI was just an amazing sojourn.
Zoharah Simmons: Well, first of all, we actually joined the Nation of Islam in Atlanta. So we got our Xs when we went to Atlanta. But of course I got a job working for the National Council of Negro Women, and my assignment was to be the Midwest field coordinator for NCNW’s project Woman Power. So Michael and I moved to Chicago for me to take that position. Well, Michael’s brother, John Ali, John Simmons, named Ali by Mr. Elijah Muhammad, was there, that was the headquarters. But we were already Muslims in the Nation when we got there. And of course, John Ali being there and Michael’s brother, I got to know him. And we were somewhat active with the Nation in Chicago, “Mecca” for the Nation of Islam.
But at the same time, I was traveling for my job, because as Midwest field coordinator I had several cities where I was organizing low income Black women for social change. And so I had Chicago, I had Cleveland, I had Detroit, Lorraine, Ohio, and Elyria, Ohio. Those were my cities. So I literally was driving from one city to the next, organizing, meeting with the women, helping them start projects, et cetera.
And while I was in Detroit, the Republic of New Africa had its founding meeting. I learned about it, I went. And although I was in the Nation, I joined to become a citizen of the Republic of New Africa. Because at that point I was very interested in the whole idea of Black people having their own communities and using those communities, be they in the mind, communities of the mind, or literally physical communities to do self-determination work. So then, of course, Mike didn’t find a job in Chicago, and he then went to New York. And so we were living in two different cities, seeing each other as often as we could. But Michael can talk about what work he was doing there in New York.
Marc Steiner: Long distance romance[ laughs].
Michael Simmons: Because ’67, I guess from May through the end of ’67, Zoharah and I wanted to move, you could say, both literally and figuratively. We were from Atlanta to Chicago to New York and winding up in Philadelphia. My stay in New York was brief, we spent the summer there working with an organization called the United Block Association, working with young people on various programs. People that the culture calls at risk, which I think is a horrible formulation. Or they’re at risk of being impacted by racism, if they’re at risk. But nevertheless, a friend of mine who had gone South with me had returned back to school. I started college at Temple University in Philadelphia. And for the first time it occurred to me that maybe I should go back to school, because I had no intentions of going back to school initially. But with that in mind, I moved back to Philadelphia, Zoharah and I. By February of ’68, I wound up resuming my studies at Temple.
In the meantime, we became… Got disenchanted, I’ll say, with the Nation of Islam, particularly its lack of activism, that which for us both is dear to our hearts. Zoharah became more enamored with the religion of Islam than I did. And so even leaving it, she stayed on her spiritual quest, dragging me along at a point, frankly [Marc and Dan laugh]. But those are kind of a summary of that time afterwards. And we were constantly on an intellectual quest at every level. I mean, vegetarianism, I remember Zoharah started cooking like the Seventh Day Adventists at one point, both of us were just totally exploring astrology, I mean, you name it, along with a political foundation that we were trying to establish.
Marc Steiner: One of the things that struck me about the story is how the spirituality and the revolution were intertwined like a dialectic together in your lives. And it just kept going in and out. And Zoharah, with the Nation of Islam. For you it was, as I read the book, was that the patriarchy just was too much for you to deal with?
Zoharah Simmons: Oh, yeah. Yes, it was. When I was driving, first of all, if you were going to go to another city, you had to get a letter from the mosque. It was called the temple then, the temple that you were a member of saying that you were a member when you went to another city. So if I’m going from Chicago to Cleveland, I have to get my letter. And then when I get to Cleveland to the temple and show them the letter, they’re saying, well, where’s your husband? How can you be here by yourself? That’s just a mild version of them not being able to understand why I’m traveling, why I’m doing this, that or the other. It was like, hey, I can’t be bothered.
I must say that in New York, for that little time we were there, Louis Farrakhan was the head of Temple No.7. And he clearly understood who we were, and he wanted us badly to be in his community and to bring others like us. So he was constantly beating off the folk who wanted us to mold to their way of acting and being. And he was like, leave these folks alone, they’re SNCC people. You can’t expect them to do everybody else. And so I just want to say that that was the case.
And of course, we always had Michael’s imprisonment hanging over our heads. We haven’t even mentioned that he had done time there in the Atlanta area because of refusing to go to be drafted and go to Vietnam. And so all the while that we’re moving around, the attorney… What’s his name? Howard, your attorney?
Michael Simmons: Oh, Howard Moore.
Dan Berger: Howard Moore.
Zoharah Simmons: Howard Moore was doing everything to keep him from having to begin serving that time, including taking it to the Supreme Court two times and having it turned back. So by the time we got to Philadelphia, the imprisonment thing was bearing down on us pretty hard, so we haven’t mentioned that hope.
Marc Steiner: No, it’s important to talk about it. And Louis Farrakhan, who I interviewed once, one thing you say about Louis Farrakhan is that he was a very bright guy, he’s no dummy. So when he saw the two of you, he wanted you all to stay. He said, oh, what do I have here? I’m not letting these two go [laughs].
Michael Simmons: He was very kind to us, he really was.
Marc Steiner: So we’re wrapping up here with part one of this conversation. There’s a great deal more to talk about, from the struggles that they went through, both as organizers across this country in different ways, Michael’s time in prison for opposing the Vietnam War, and the life they lived, the child they had, the children in their lives, where that goes. And it brings us to their lives and their struggle to change America, fight racism, make a different world, being part of different communist movements. How all that files in today and what we’re facing with the rise of the right wing. So you don’t want to miss that part of the conversation, which is coming up next. But right now, I want to thank you, Dan Berger, for the book –
Dan Berger: Thank you.
Marc Steiner: …And for having this idea of bringing these into incredible people together, Zoharah and Michael Simmons both to be part of this conversation. And we will continue this. And I want to thank you all for the work you’ve done and for the life the two of you have led and what you’re doing to make this place we live in a better place.
Michael Simmons: Thank you so much, and we thank you, yes.
Zoharah Simmons: Thank you very much, thanks.
Dan Berger: Yeah, thanks so much.