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“I Want to Be Your Friend, You Black Idiot!!”: The Dynamics of Majority Involvement in Minority Movements

speakers' biographies

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Religion
University of Florida

I have spent all of my adult life in efforts to end racism, sexism and militarism in our society.  I began my work in 1962 as a college student at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia when I became involved in the Student branch of the Civil Rights Movement there, which was very active at that time. I was greatly influenced by Staughton Lynd, my radical white history professor in my freshman and sophomore years.  He introduced me to the history of the black struggle in the Americas which began in the slave ships on the shores of Africa and on the high seas [something my own separate but equal education had failed to teach me] and he introduced us to the many slave revolts in the U.S. especially those led by Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner. In the classes I took with him, I was introduced to not only the slave rebellions but to the role of blacks in the U. S. Civil War [how we freed ourselves] and our valiant efforts at self government during the Reconstruction era as well as to the on-going battles against racism and all aspects of Jim Crowism that were occurring right outside of Spelman’s gates. Lynd helped to set the intellectual and historical foundation for the work that I unknowingly was being prepared to embark upon in the not too distant future.

The young college age students who worked in SNCC (The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) made a profound impression upon me early on also. They were often on the various campuses of the Atlanta University Center attempting to recruit students for the planned mass meetings, up-coming demonstrations, and for general volunteer work at the SNCC office.  These were young men and women who were my own age who had taken time away for their studies to march, sit-in, wade-in, pray-in, be beaten and go to jail in their unstinting efforts to free black people from the shackles of racism and oppression that had held us in their grip for so long.

As I was the first person in my immediate family to finish high school and go to college, I was initially leery about getting involved as the Spelman administration had made it clear that we were not to get involved and that if we did our scholarships (which was the reason I was there) would be withdrawn.  Plus my grandmother, mother and father had warned me before I left Memphis – city of my birth - to not get involved in that “mess.” They repeatedly reminded me of how lucky I was to be going to Spelman on a scholarship, no less, and that I had better not blow this chance to make something of myself.  I too saw this as my ticket out of the low-income working class existence in which I had been raised.  I had visions of being a doctor or a lawyer and entering the black middle class in which I would have a nice brick home and a late model automobile.  Something I had not had but had wished for all of my life.

Yet I so admired these folks and deep in my heart knew that I wanted to join them, while not relinquishing my dream of a middle class lifestyle.  As I did gradually get involved making “illegal” forays to the SNCC headquarters, I met Ruby Doris Robinson, John Lewis, James Forman, Judy Richardson, Julian Bond and others who immediately became my heroes as I made my first tentative forays in the Movement world. First came office work, then attending mass meetings, which led to joining the marches and the picket lines to finally the unthinkable – arrest and jailing. I caught hell from both the Spelman administration and my family, especially my grandmother and was on the verge of expulsion on several occasions.

Simultaneously, under orders from my grandmother, I had joined a Baptist church.  It just happened to be the West Hunter Street Baptist church which was just a short walk from campus and reminded me of my home church I had left behind in Memphis.  It happened to be pastored by Rev. Ralph David Abernathy – close friend and associate of Dr. Martin King, Jr. In that church’s pulpit, I not only heard Rev. Abernathy preach the social gospel but was also blessed to hear Dr. King preach his urgent message of “change now” in that sanctuary. I would later meet, march and work with Dr. King and members of his SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) on a number of desegregation campaigns as a member of SNCC during my two years (1962-1964) in Atlanta as a student and a burgeoning activist. After going to Mississippi, [completely against the wishes of my family who did everything in their power to prevent it] I became a full time SNCC Field Secretary and served as Project Director there from 1964 to 1966.  I went there as a volunteer in the COFO’s (Council of Federated Organizations –CORE, NAACP, & SNCC) 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project and served in Laurel, Miss. as Project Director.  I served in that capacity for eighteen months working that summer with the twenty four volunteers who were assigned to work in Laurel. The Laurel Project developed two  freedom school sites, worked to get blacks registered to vote, held mock elections along with all the other Project sites, developed an active branch of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and attempted to desegregate some of the restaurants and other segregated establishments in Laurel.

After my work in Mississippi, I worked for a brief stint in SNCC’s New York office helping to organize high school and college Friends of SNCC chapters.  But the draw of the South and Julian Bond’s eviction from his duly elected seat in the Georgia State legislature caused me to return to Atlanta.  Bond has been ejected from the chamber because, as SNCC’s Communications Director, his name appeared on the organization’s press statement against the War in Vietnam.  I had participated in the creation of that statement, which was the first one issued by a Civil Rights Organization against the War.  After helping to secure Bond’s re-election, I joined with others in forming the Atlanta Project of SNCC.  One of the primary foci of the Atlanta Projects’ work was to end the war in Vietnam and to specifically educate African Americans about the injustice of the war and their need to resist it and to resist the draft. My former husband, also a SNCC staff person, refused to be inducted into the Army and was sentenced to three and one-half years in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary.  My involvement in anti-Vietnam War activities increased exponentially during the period of his internment.

The Atlanta Project of SNCC is also known for its role in the development of the Black Power thrust in SNCC and for pushing the idea that SNCC should return to being an all or mostly black organization due to the psychological legacy of internalized racism and the need to educate the staff of the organization and the black community as whole on what self-determination and black power meant.  

My work against the war in Vietnam was the beginning of my active involvement in the peace movement, which has continued until today with my current involvement in anti-Iraq and Afghanistan war activities.  I became involved with the AFSC’s (American Friends Service Committee) peace work due to my involvement in anti-Vietnam War work.  I went from being an AFSC volunteer to that of a full-time staff person at AFSC.  I worked in a number of roles at AFSC for 23 years.

I have been actively involved in efforts to end the Israeli Occupation of Palestine and have been a member of two interreligious Middle East Peace delegations to the region.  The first delegation in which I was a member, comprised of Jews, Christians and Muslims occurred in 1994.  Our group met with high level public officials, religious leaders and peace activists in Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Syria, during four weeks of intensive travels and meetings.  Upon our return, we developed a detailed report that was sent to all members of the US Congress and we followed up with visits to Congressional offices urging a change in US policy and imploring our government to engage in balanced negotiations that treated Israelis and Palestinians equally.

The second Middle East Peace delegation in which I was a participant was as a member of the International Quaker Working Party for Middle East Peace that occurred in 2002. This delegation was also comprised of Jews, Christians and Muslims from Britain, Canada, South Africa and the U.S.  We spent six weeks in the region, meeting with political, religious, and academic leaders in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria as well as with members of the Israeli and Palestinian peace movements.  Our group produced a book, When the Rains Return, published in 2004.  This book has been one of the current centerpieces of an AFSC’s Middle East Peace Campaign whose goal is to get the U.S. government to stop its unilateral support of the Israeli Occupation, and to turn its efforts toward a just and equitable peace between the two peoples.  I and the members of the International Quaker Working Party (IQWP) continue our work through speaking engagements, penning articles, and lobbying members of Congress.

In the late 1980s, while continuing to work at the AFSC, I returned to college to complete my undergraduate degree, which I had long left undone.  I graduated from Antioch University in 1989.  I then enrolled in Temple University’s Religion Department to pursue a Ph.D. in Islamic studies.  After completion of my class room work, I applied for and was awarded a Fulbright pre-dissertation fellowship and a NMERTA fellowship for dissertation research, both to occur in Jordan. I lived in Amman, Jordan from 1996-1998 conducting ethnographic research on the contemporary impact of Shari’ah (Islamic Family Law) on women in Jordan.  I completed my doctoral studies in May of 2002.  I had been teaching at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fl. as a visiting professor while I completed my dissertation.  I am currently an Assistant Professor of Religion here at the University of Florida where I teach Islam Studies and African American Religious Traditions.

I have been and continue to be active in demonstrations and speak-outs on the injustice of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.  As a scholar of Islam with a history of travel and living in the Middle East, in my classroom as well as in the numerous talks I give, I address issues of Islamophobia and other anti-Muslim discriminatory actions here in the U.S.

For the last six years, I have served as faculty at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I have several published essays in books including: Windows of Faith: Muslim Women Scholar-Activists in North America, edited by Gisela Webb and  published by Syracuse UP; Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, edited by Omid Safi, published by One World Press, Women Embracing Islam: Gender and Conversion to Islam in the West,  edited by Karin Nieuwkerk, published by the University of Texas Press, and most recently, an account of my civil rights work in The Time That Was: American Stories from the 1960s, edited by Karen Manners Smith & Tom Posten, published by Prentice Hall. In the fall of 2008, I published “From Muslims in America to American Muslims” in the Journal of Islamic Law & Culture and the essay, “Martin Luther King Revisited: A Black Power Feminist Pays Homage to the King” in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.  I am presently editing my manuscript whose working title is: Muslim Feminism – A Call for Reform for resubmission to New York University Press and am under contract with The New Press to write a monogram – Islam Does Not Equal Fundamentalism  as one of its six-part series on the Abrahamic faiths from a progressive perspective. This title is due out in the winter of 2010.

The above gives you a brief over-view of my forty plus years of work in the struggle for peace and justice as well as my academic work.