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Plenary Panel — Consequential Impact of the Civil Rights Movement: Implications for Advancing Social Justice in the 21st Century
Advancing Social Justice from Classroom to Community
A National Symposium
November 20-21, 2015
New York University
Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, University of Florida
I was a college student turned civil rights activist during the turbulent 1960s and beyond—the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement—so I’m always happy to participate in discussions about that movement, which was a movement to expand democracy in this country. As all of you are teachers, administrators, and are related to higher education, I know that you believe—because you choose this topic—that it is important for young people to be taught that these freedoms that we are all pleased to have and talk about endlessly (at least our politicians do), that they didn’t come free—they’ve come at a very, very high price. What rights African Americans, working-class people, women of all races have today are the result of perilous struggles that are most often overlooked or glossed over in our history books and the myths and sagas that we repeat over and over about this country’s history. Randall Robinson (some of you may know his name and his work), in the book The Debt, quoted Napoleon of all people, who said, “History is the myth that men choose to believe.” So of course we know and we’ve been talking . . . about how little is taught about the Civil Rights Movement and the movements before it in our schools.
Unfortunately the 60s get pegged as a period of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll by a number of videos and things that have been even on PBS (I was quite ashamed of them for that). As Howard Zinn, in his book—which I hope everyone is familiar with—A People’s History of the United States, when he described the student revolts of the 60s, said, “In the early 1960s black people rose in rebellion all over the South. And in the late 1960s they were engaging in wild insurrection in a hundred northern cities. It was all a surprise to those without that deep memory of slavery, that everyday presence of humiliation, registered in the poetry, the music, the occasional outbursts of anger, the more frequent sullen silences.”
So I am very pleased to have been a part of that movement—it shaped my life. I learned and it really gave me an unshakeable belief in the idea that ordinary people can change things for the better if they are motivated and organized. I also learned that young people armed with an idea, with a zeal, to right wrongs and set things right can change things for the better.
Hopefully all of you in this room are familiar with how the black student movement began in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1st, 1960, when four well-dressed young black men sat down at a Woolworth’s station and asked to be served and, of course, the lunch counter was closed. They came back the next day with more people, and more and more came, and then this spread and in the next twelve months more than 50 thousand people, mostly black, some white, participated in demonstrations of one kind or another, over 3600 were jailed, and by the end of 1960 the lunch counters in Greensboro and some other places were open to blacks for the first time in a long time.
But ironically, Atlanta, which called itself the “city too busy to hate,” had not integrated its lunch counters or anything else by the time I arrived in 1962 as a freshmen at Spelman College. Nothing really had changed. The sit-in movement was beginning to heat up. As a poor, first-person-in-my-family-to-go-to-college (and only by virtue of a full scholarship), I was warned by my parents to not get involved in any way in the sit-ins or other demonstrations. And Spelman’s administration warned us not to get involved, that we would lose our scholarships and even be expelled. And so, of course, I had said, “Oh, I’m not going to touch that, I’m not going to get involved.” I told myself that my going to college and making good grades and making something out of myself . . . was my contribution to the race, but when the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, pronounced “Snick”] students—folks who had dropped out of college to work full-time in the student movement—came on the campus (which they did daily to recruit us to join the latest march, or to sit-in at a lunch counter) and chided us for not joining, I started feeling guilty more and more, and little by little my defenses against joining the movement began to erode. But I kept trying to find a way to do both: stay in college and work in the movement.
Then, little by little, I started going to the office and, in fact, doing some cleaning, which was quite needed at 8 and a 1/2 Raymond Street (throwing out trash, stuff like that), and more and more doing office work, etc. But I said [to myself], “I gotta stay out of jail at all costs, because if Spelman finds out—and even worse if my grandmother finds out—I’m going to be in real trouble,” and so for a time I kept to my pledge that I was going to demonstrate but I wasn’t going to get arrested.
Well, after a time I grew emboldened, mainly by what I was seeing of my colleagues as well as the anger that was mounting about this unjust system of what was really an American apartheid, and so I finally permitted myself to stay and be arrested. Those of you who have seen the Eyes on the Prize documentaries, or who were there yourself, recall that often we would shout, “I ain’t afraid of your jails ’cause I want my freedom,” as we were carted off. But this was a step for me from which there was no turning back. Something happened during those demos, and certainly during that first jailing—perhaps it was the idea made flesh that I first and foremost was a human being with all the rights and responsibilities that that brings, that I had a right to break laws that were unjust, that treated me as a non-human being, and that as a full human being I had agency. And it was during this time that my own personal ambitions began to recede, and I became committed to the communal goals of freedom and justice for African Americans and others.
Now this—don’t get me wrong—this was not done overnight and it wasn’t done easily. I came under tremendous attack by the school—threatened, put on probation—not to mention what my grandmother was threatening to do: come there and actually put a belt to me. So, anyway, it was a time of great tension, fear, and uncertainty, but somehow I was able to stay for two years while being involved with SNCC and the demos and all.
Then I decided that I had to go to Mississippi, because I was learning about the Mississippi Freedom Summer project from teachers as well as my SNCC colleagues. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with this project—hopefully you saw the film about it—but this project’s goal was to take up to 1,000 college-aged, primarily white persons to Mississippi to register African Americans to vote, to at least attempt to do that, and to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. We also set up Freedom Schools, Freedom Libraries, and we had classes for adults on literacy and civic engagement.
Mississippi was known as the hellhole of the south for black people and it was in many ways the worst. When Nina Simone wrote and performed the song “Mississippi Goddam,” she knew of what she sang. And I’d been taught all my life in Memphis, which is right down the road, about how bad Mississippi was: I’d seen the pictures of Emmett Till and all. So I was terrified of Mississippi, but terrified or not I felt I had to go and I spent eighteen months there working with local leaders.
And this is one of the things that I think really opened my eyes . . . Laurel didn’t have an infrastructure when we got there and little by little we started meeting people. We had to sleep in Hattiesburg, the next town over, thirty miles to the south, and go up in the day looking for people. Finally, I had a name of an NAACP member named Eberta Spinks, and I went and knocked on her door. When she opened it, I was stumbling trying to figure out how you ask somebody: “Can I live with you? And put you in danger of being killed and your house being burned and everything?” How do you ask somebody that who’s never laid eyes on you before, right? So I was sort of stumbling around trying to figure out how to say it and she looked at me, because I had on blue jeans (we had sort of a uniform, and I had on a blue jean jacket and my blue jeans), and she said, “Are you one of those Freedom Riders?” And I didn’t know if that was good or bad, and I said, “Yes, ma’am.” And she said, “Come in, I’ve been waiting on you all my life.” And she was in her late fifties.
That was the beginning of the Laurel movement. We were able to carry out the plans of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, which included having a strong Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party chapter, Freedom Schools, Freedom Library, etc.
As many of you know the Civil Rights Movement was somewhat successful in changing things for African Americans and other persons of color in this nation. As Zinn writes, “Congress began reacting to the black revolt, the turmoil, the world publicity”—that was very important—”Civil rights laws were passed in 1957, 1960, and 1964. They promised much, on voting equality, on employment equality, but were enforced poorly or ignored. In 1965, President Johnson sponsored and Congress passed an even stronger Voting Rights Law, this time ensuring on-the-spot federal protection of the right to register and vote.” But it took several deaths to push President Johnson and this nation to act in this way, so let’s not forget what it took to get Johnson to actually sponsor this legislation. If you saw the film Selma, you saw this. Zinn continues: “The effect [of the Voting Rights Law] on Negro voting in the South was dramatic. In 1952, a million southern blacks (20 percent of those eligible) registered to vote. In 1964, the number was 2 million—40 percent. By 1968, it was 3 million, 60 percent—the same percentage as white voters.” But, as Zinn so rightly notes, “The federal government was trying—without making fundamental changes—to control an explosive situation, to channel anger into the traditional cooling mechanism of the ballot box, the polite petition, and the officially endorsed quiet gathering.”
One of the results of the Civil Rights Movement was the national acknowledgment on the part of this nation that African Americans, and all minorities of color to some degree, had been denied their civil and many of their human rights over several centuries. This of course has included lack of equal access to quality education at the primary and secondary levels as well as lack of access to equal higher education for most members of this group. In spite of this grudging acknowledgment and the commitment on paper to remedy this longstanding policy and practice of denial of rights in the economic, political, and social realms, including the realm of education, the US has never been close to the reality of equality for all Americans in any area.
The white majority in this country creates and defends with vigor the very systems which produce and perpetuate poverty and discrimination against African Americans and other minority groups. The sociologists Feagin, Vera, and Batur say that one of the great ironies of US history is the fact that “freedom and liberty were developed for white Americans on the backs of African Americans and other Americans of color, yet this fact is largely lost on white Americans, as is the implication and consequences of this long-term racial oppression of African and Native Americans, which are largely denied or brushed aside today by many, if not most, white Americans. For the most part they are in denial of the reality of white racism with its deep roots in the past and its continued grip on the present.”
An example of this, I think,—hopefully you would agree—is the polling data on white reactions to police killings of unarmed black men, women, and children, where there’s only a small number who think that these blacks were killed wrongly, rather thinking, well, they were doing something wrong, they shouldn’t have been where they were, etc. And of course there’s been the attack on affirmative action via court cases and ballot initiatives. In addition [we have] the critical issues of economic injustice not addressed in a substantive way by the Civil Rights Movement, though it was a concern of all of us in the Movement, and if you will recall, those of you old enough or who have read about it, it was the focus of Dr. King’s last crusade, the Poor People’s Campaign. So we have terrible poverty, and economic injustice that has not been addressed, not even a little bit.
We have mass incarceration, [which] was so eloquently addressed by attorney Michelle Alexander in her wonderful book The New Jim Crow, which I hope you’ve read—if not, please get it and read it. Feeding this new Jim Crow system, this prison-industrial complex, is the school-to-prison pipeline, which is a terrible situation in our middle schools and in our high schools; so many of our children, for things that would have been thought of as mere discipline problems, now get the police called in and you get a record which pretty much guarantees that you are going to wind up incarcerated at a later point if not soon thereafter. This is a major problem.
We are also confronted with police and vigilante killings of unarmed black men, women, and children. Most often police officers are exonerated and are able to resume their careers as law enforcement officers.
Then we have cutbacks in the right to vote, and I know a lot of us who were in the movement who know people who died to get this right secured are particularly concerned about the retrenchment on voting rights, particularly since the ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder case in 2013, where they struck down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and almost immediately states began enacting legislation that would restrict the right to vote for blacks, for the elderly, and for students in many instances.
It’s relatively easy to lay out the problems; it’s infinitely more difficult to come up with solutions for the problems that we see today. I have been greatly encouraged by the spate of student-youth-led movements that are tackling many of these horrific problems of racial and economic injustice head-on. Some of us may have forgotten the Occupy movement, and I always bring it up whenever I’m talking. I had the great opportunity to sit out there in some of those encampments in New York, Washington, Oakland, San Francisco, and right in my little town of Gainesville, where we had a small grouping of people who slept outside. But just observing the kind of discussion—and almost everybody there was new to the movement—and while of course that movement was squashed, they did bring up the point of the one percent vs. the rest of us, and the whole issue of economic inequality and injustice, which fortunately has become something that even mainstream media and politicians are willing to address.
Right there in Florida we had the Dream Defenders, who really put the issue of vigilante—white vigilante killing of black people—on the map, and I’ve had the great pleasure of being an advisor to the University of Florida chapter. I’m upset in some ways that I’m away from a northeast meeting of the Dream Defenders that they had expected me to be at, but this group is going forward with their work. Then we have the assortment of groups that are under youth leadership that we identify with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter; they give me great hope. They are raising the issue, and have raised [the issue of] police violence, and police killings, and won’t let that issue go. We have the Moral Mondays Movement, started in North Carolina, that is fighting against restrictions on voting rights and other right wing initiatives happening at the state level. This movement has given me great hope.
And last but not least, the recent of spate of black student protests demanding an end to systemic racism on our majority white college campuses—given that I happen to work on one of these and see the effect of racism on a daily basis, I’m very excited about what they are doing. These students, in addition to calling for the resignations of top administrators who they say have not done enough to respond to racism on campuses, are demanding implementation of racial justice curricula. This throws me back to when I was marching there in Philadelphia and other places demanding black studies. And, of course, in many places, black studies—if we have those projects—are these programs on majority white campuses that are often woefully underfunded and often pushed very much to the sidelines, so I’m happy to see this issue coming up again.
So I believe that the above movements are showing us the way forward in developing an agenda for the civil rights, human rights movements of today. At the forefront, certainly, is the ending of white supremacy (long-term goal) through education on racism and its enduring role in our country’s history for all students K-12, as well as at the higher education level; economic justice, beginning with 15-dollar-an-hour minimum wage; quality and equal education for all students, regardless of race or economic status; a constitutional amendment enshrining the universal right to vote for all citizens 18 and over; restoration of citizenship rights for ex-felons upon their release from imprisonment; creation of citizen review boards to investigate police killings and excessive use of force cases with the ability to fire these officers and recommend criminal charges be brought against them; and the last one on my list, universal healthcare for every citizen, that begins at birth, Medicare for all.
In closing, we the people of this country who love human life, who cherish human rights, economic and democratic freedoms for everyone, I believe need to support initiatives like these and others that were not covered. We need to engage ourselves—wherever we are and however we can—in organizing a people’s movement to bring about a government that represents the wishes of the people to live just and humane lives in harmony with peoples around the world, and with our nonhuman creations with whom we share this planet.