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Stayed On Freedom
The Long History of Black Power through One Family’s Journey
By Dan Berger
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The Black Power movement, often associated with its iconic spokesmen, derived much of its energy from the work of people whose stories have never been told. Stayed On Freedom brings into focus two unheralded Black Power activists who dedicated their lives to the fight for freedom.
Zoharah Simmons and Michael Simmons fell in love while organizing tenants and workers in the South. Their commitment to each other and to social change took them on a decades-long journey that traversed first the country and then the world. In centering their lives, historian Dan Berger shows how Black Power united the local and the global across organizations and generations.
Based on hundreds of hours of interviews, Stayed On Freedom is a moving and intimate portrait of two people trying to make a life while working to make a better world.
Every student loves a guest speaker. And the history class I took my freshman year of college had some great ones. There was the Vietnam War veteran who became an anti-war leader, spied on and shot at by the government he once served. There was the folk singer who performed ballads of strife and struggle. It was the only class I looked forward to that semester.
The guest speaker who would most change my life was a professor. She was a new instructor at the University of Florida, having started there that year. She was not a history professor. In fact, she didn’t even speak about her scholarship. Faith and marriage had given her the name Zoharah Simmons, though she was born Gwen Robinson. And thirty-five years previously, she had been a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Her involvement in the civil rights movement had led her to put a two-and-a-half-decade pause on her college studies.
Her hair braided and pulled back, bright red lipstick visible from halfway back in the lecture hall, she began to speak. I cannot, in all honesty, remember what she said that day. She probably mentioned that she had been raised by her grandmother, who had been raised by her grandmother, an enslaved woman. She might have mentioned her first political act: an unplanned sit-in on a Memphis bus she did as a teenager after white employers refused to hire her for the middle-class jobs she was raised to desire. Regardless of the specifics, more than twenty years later, I remember feeling enthralled. To my surprise, she was teaching in the Religion Department—a field far removed from my interests at the time. Nevertheless, the following year, I enrolled in her Race, Religion, and Rebellion class. We read about the ways messianic faith and political protest comingled in African American history, from the nineteenth-century prophecies of abolitionists Nat Turner and David Walker to the ecumenical liberation theology of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the larger civil rights movement. Along the way, Dr. Simmons revealed tidbits of her Baptist upbringing, her time in the Nation of Islam, and her embrace of Islamic mysticism.
Outside of class, Zoharah—as she invited me to call her—drew on her movement history as a faculty advisor to the campus activism I was doing against racism and for worker rights. Zoharah introduced me to the concept of Black Power. Pointing to her time as one of the only woman project directors of Mississippi Freedom Summer, she described Black Power as a response to the feeling of inferiority and helplessness Black people expressed under segregation. She described the motivations plainly: Black people needed to see one another as leaders, thinkers, and doers. Such self-assured affirmations of power were necessary to do away with decades of segregation and terrorism. What’s more, she said in her lilting Tennessee accent, Black Power was a call for white people to confront racism at its source in institutions created and led by white people. Rather than division, Black Power pursued a coalitional strategy of organized constituencies pursuing social change.
I was shook. As she explained it, Black Power offered a plan of action—even for a white kid from the suburbs. I rushed to read what I could on the civil rights movement, disappointed to find that many historians associated Black Power with Stokely Carmichael or the Black Panther Party but dismissed the Atlanta Project of SNCC that Zoharah had codirected, where the call for Black Power originated, as an aberration. If her story was true, their story was at best incomplete.
That summer, I drove with several friends to Philadelphia to protest the Republican National Convention. We went to meetings at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker peace and justice organization whose headquarters was blocks from city hall. Before coming to the University of Florida, Zoharah had spent two decades on staff at the AFSC doing everything from investigating government surveillance to leading international human rights delegations. Her ex-husband, Michael, whom I would meet a few years later, still worked there. They came to the AFSC as part of a cohort of 1960s radicals who looked to make social change their avocation—Black Power’s long march through various institutions and across the planet.
Dan, what are you doing here? The smooth baritone voice inquired behind me. I was surprised, for I was coming out of my own apartment building, where I had lived for almost two years, so none of the residents would be startled by my presence. And my surprise grew when I saw who was asking. Michael?! I half-yelled, in bewildered delight. You live in Hungary! What are you doing here? We moved to the porch and began to catch up, Michael with a backward Kangol hat and unflappable soul aesthetic, puffing on a cigarillo.
Michael Simmons grew up in a two-bedroom house about four miles from my two-bedroom apartment in West Philadelphia, in a part of the city that some called Brewerytown but that he lovingly called Norf Philly. Michael’s stepfather had recently passed away, and Michael was staying in the family home, as he always did when he was in town from Budapest. But today he was in West Philly paying a social visit: it turns out that my downstairs neighbors were his niece and nephew. Their Arabic names owed to the fact that their parents, Michael’s brother and former sister-in-law, had been in the Nation of Islam. My ongoing connection to the Simmons family was larger than I realized.
I had met Michael in 2005, a year after I moved to Philadelphia. He was a featured speaker at an event at the American Friends Service Committee presenting about Black resistance to the Vietnam War. He knew the subject intimately: he had refused induction into the US military in 1966, for which he spent almost three years in prison, and he organized a Black draft resistance network. We hit it off immediately. His face broke into a wide smile when I introduced myself as Zoharah’s former student. (Look, the marriage didn’t work out, Zoharah told me when I described our meeting, but there’s still a lot of love between us.) I learned that he had grown up in Philadelphia, a bookish student in underfunded but integrated schools who narrowly avoided expulsion in his senior year of high school after he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. He left college in 1965 to join the Southern civil rights movement, a decision he described, despite seeing himself as a born-again heathen, with almost religious devotion. The freedom movement was his only aspiration. I just knew I had to be there, he would say. There began in the US South but would encompass a Black radical foreign policy that would take him to Cuba, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and beyond. To him, Black Power was a plank of a universal freedom struggle—because there are no issues that are not “Black issues.”
In prison Michael was a bridge between white pacifists and Black radicals—a connection that led him to three decades of work with the AFSC and ultimately to relocate to Hungary, a country I had only associated with my grandmother’s deportation to Auschwitz. Coincidentally, I was participating in a conference in Budapest that fall. Michael met me at the airport, and I nursed my jetlag at a café patio in the Budapest sun near his apartment. The highlight of my trip was the “Ráday Salon,” a monthly gathering of artists, activists, and others interested in human rights that Michael and his partner, human rights attorney and American expat of Costa Rican heritage Linda Carranza, hosted at their flat on Ráday Street. About seventy people of all ages crammed into the apartment for a delightful blend of food, music, and conversation.
Michael returned to Philly every year or two. If we didn’t see each other in person, we might talk on the phone. Now, chatting on my porch in 2010, I asked if he would join me for a panel discussion I was moderating on Philadelphia activism in the 1970s, to be held at Robin’s Books, which had, once upon a time, provided meeting space for the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society.
It was a packed house and, to this day, one of the most generative public conversations I’ve been part of. As part of his remarks, Michael offered his own Zen meditation question on the erasure of Black Power’s internationalism: If a group of Black people organized an anti-war demonstration and no white people showed up, did it really happen? Not according to many journalists and historians, he said, turning the punch line into a pointed barb. Michael had spent the 1970s working on two fronts: using affirmative action law to organize workers and fighting apartheid and colonialism in southern Africa. He applied both efforts within the AFSC, too, pushing the organization to adopt an affirmative action policy and divest from businesses that did business in South Africa. It was a matter of principle, for, as he saw it, daily actions determine political mettle. I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done in the past, he told the crowd. You’ve got to earn your wings every day.
As a newly minted PhD, I invited Aishah Shahidah Simmons to give a lecture on Black cinema to my class. Michael and Zoharah’s only child, Aishah was also a celebrated filmmaker. She had spent more than a decade making NO!, the first documentary about sexual violence in Black communities. Zoharah had mentioned the project to our class in 2001, five years before its release. The film screened internationally and earned several awards. I first saw it at a Philadelphia art house.
I met Aishah at the AFSC event where Michael spoke in 2005 and would see her around infrequently. In 2009 a conference brought me to Chicago when she was a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Chicago. My visit overlapped with one from Zoharah, and the three of us had a sweet reunion in a different city.
Gregarious and quick with a smile, Aishah had a suffer-no-fools attitude that perfectly combined both of her parents into something all her own. She had grown up at the AFSC, first as a child and later as an employee. Now she devoted her energies to her advocacy filmmaking as AfroLez Productions. I didn’t know it then, but she was beginning to devote increasing attention to addressing the sexual abuse she had suffered as a child from Michael’s stepfather. Proudly committed to Black community media, Aishah was a big hit with my students. And when she mentioned that her brother, Michael’s son from another relationship, was Tyree Simmons—better known as DJ Drama—several students gasped. And then their eyes turned to me, visibly reconsidering their sense of who I was. After Aishah left, when one brave student raised his hand to ask How do you know her?, I tried to explain the serendipitous influence of a good guest speaker.
For years, as I read histories of activism and then as I started to write my own, I thought often of Michael and Zoharah. They seemed representative of the rich messiness of social movements. Their particular stories, rife with drama and excitement, raised several questions about the easy assumptions animating conceptions of the past. If the peace movement has been so white, how does one explain Michael’s incarceration for draft resistance and transcontinental anti-militarism organizing? If Christianity is the foundation of Black activism, how can we understand Zoharah’s journey from Baptist to Sufism, working alongside Quakers and communists? If Black Power developed in the North and contrary to the Southern civil rights movement, how could two civil rights organizers—one from the South, one from the North—have helped develop the concept in Atlanta as part of the premier Southern civil rights organization and then bring it with them to Philadelphia and points beyond? Their stories raised other questions too. How did Black Power converse with social movements around the world, from the fight against apartheid in South Africa or Palestine to the ongoing civil rights struggles of Roma people in eastern Europe? What are the personal costs of such full-time commitment to radical social change?
Two years earlier, I had published a book about the central role incarcerated people played in the Black Power movement, an extension of both my doctoral research and activism for prison abolition. That story ended in the early 1980s, with the entrenchment of mass incarceration and the death of several key participants in the anti-prison movement. It was a depressing story, and I longed to tell a hopeful story. Above all, as I promised my toddler that he would grow up in a better world—despite so much evidence to the contrary—I wanted to know how long-distance freedom fighters persevered through fear, panic, and the humdrum responsibilities of daily life.
So, in 2016, on International Women’s Day, I asked Zoharah and Michael if we could collaborate on a joint biography. I knew they both had teased the idea of writing memoirs, yet their ongoing organizing often prevented them from the solitary discipline of writing. They agreed to the project. In discussing the process, we agreed that our interviews are their intellectual property, that I would be the book’s author and bear the responsibility for gathering and interpreting the facts, and that any royalties the book may earn will be split evenly among us. What follows is their story, told to the best of my ability.
We spoke often over the next six years. In addition to the research I conducted in several archival collections, I spent hundreds of hours with Michael and Zoharah recording their stories. I went with Zoharah to Memphis, where the shotgun house she had shared with her grandparents and father is now an empty lot, surrounded on either side by replicas of the structure she once lived in. The neighborhood that had once joined well-to-do Black people with their working-class neighbors is now run-down, abandoned people living next to abandoned houses. The church she grew up in still stands, though, and we attended a Sunday service together.
During a weekend of interviews, Michael showed me the Philadelphia neighborhood he was raised in—now more integrated between Black and Brown than Black and white. Its working-class imprimatur persists. Michael’s roots in Philadelphia are unshakable. The house where he spent his teenage years, the house where his stepfather molested his daughter, is his home whenever he is in the United States. (A friend of his lives in it year-round.) I stayed there for two nights in February 2019, filling up a whole legal pad with notes as Michael and I chatted until my wrists ached and my eyes drooped in the early morning hours.
The research for this book also took me to several archives around the country, where I sought to verify, contextualize, and expand Michael’s and Zoharah’s stories. It took me to many living rooms, too, some in person and many more over the phone or Zoom. In addition to Michael and Zoharah themselves, I interviewed dozens of people who have worked with them over the years, including their daughter, Aishah. Most of those I spoke with, like Michael and Zoharah, have rich histories of activism but little acclaim. These first-person testimonials capture the beating heart of the fight for freedom as can be recalled decades later. Even the memory of true events can be fungible and open to other interpretations, however, so I have opted to render remembered quotations in italics. Unless otherwise noted, passages in italics or other personal reflections shared here come from my interviews with Michael and Zoharah. A full list of interviews appears at the end of the book.
Two of many foot soldiers in the movement, both then and now, Zoharah and Michael show the multitudes of Black Power—a philosophy, an orientation, a social movement—as lived in one family. Their story is the story of a larger freedom movement that connects South and North in the age of Jim Crow, East and West in the Cold War era, and the world in a time of increased globalization. It links dorm rooms and jail cells, union halls and nonprofit offices, the church and the mosque, the study group and the classroom as laboratories of political participation. Black Power is the worldmaking pursuit of global justice, one that reaches well past the 1960s and into our own day and age, where the distribution of power continues to uphold profound inequalities that are often realized through racist violence and national exclusion. Seen from the lives of Michael and Zoharah, from the grassroots, such questions of power come sharply into focus. In their lives, Black Power drives a global struggle for freedom.
What follows is a story of love and hope, despair and persistence in pursuit of justice. This book is two people’s stories, as those stories intersect, divide, and parallel each other. It is neither only their story nor all of their story. Rather, it encapsulates how people made through social movements remain, as the gospel song reworked to be a civil rights movement anthem puts it, stayed on freedom. The story unfolds largely in real time, thrills and heartbreaks alike. The past is a foreign country that we still live in, and this record of Black Power’s evolution is undoubtedly shaped by the deep injustices and urgent mobilizations of our contemporary context. I hope that readers, like the subjects of this book, use each deepening revelation to ask new questions of themselves and each other about the world we live in and the one we would like to inhabit.
A LOVE SUPREME
The modern Black struggle for freedom is a global symbol of the pursuit of justice. Its glories can be found in print and in song, on screen and on streets. Its details have been told through famous people, through major organizations, through signature places. We have gotten to know Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks more intimately than their famous speeches or dramatic actions have revealed. We have gotten front-row seats to the hyper-democracy of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the patriarchal charisma of the Nation of Islam, the inner workings of the Black Panther Party. We have ridden the buses of Montgomery, faced the snarling dogs of Birmingham, visited the homes of the “local people” who welcomed movement organizers into rural Mississippi, stepped inside the factories of Detroit, walked the Oakland streets. In each, we learned something of the divergent goals, strategies, and philosophies of the freedom fight.1
The story most of us have been told is already a riveting one. Yet it is an incomplete one. Politicians crib its slogans—“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” Barack Obama averred in his 2008 presidential run—while both proponents and detractors cherry-pick the past, describing Black Lives Matter as “not your grandfather’s civil rights movement.” Whether in plagiarism, disavowal, or genuflection, the civil rights movement continues to be the mother tongue of American protest. Every effort at transformational change speaks its language. Or at least tries to. Yet in cleaving civil rights from Black Power, politicians, pundits, and partisans slur the movement’s collective spirit—its demand for jobs, housing, democracy, an end to police violence: for freedom. Juxtaposing the civil rights movement with contemporary efforts treats the former as either weak-kneed or too pure and the past as antagonistic rather than intimately connected to the present.
Black Power is the bridge connecting the twentieth-century battles against Jim Crow to the ongoing fights against war, racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. For the Black struggle for freedom has always exceeded the boundaries of person, place, and thing, of time and place, that have been put on it. The divides often used to interpret the movement—between North and South, self-defense and nonviolence, faith and secularism, the local and the global, the past and the future—were blurred in practice. Every movement produces a rich archive of strategic and tactical debates. But in the lives of people who bring the movement to life, those debates are not so easily partitioned. Because, as historian Robin Kelley has said, social movements “generate new knowledge, new theories, new questions,” they count among them a curious and reflective lot. The needs of one era are not the same in the next, and the practices needed to change the world often shift accordingly. Yet the people persist.2
These transformations in activism are best seen over the duration of long political lives. Limiting the freedom fight to a time (“the sixties”) or even a set of campaigns (“the civil rights movement”) creates a distance greater than that lived by its partisans and participants. The children who grew up in segregated cities and towns, raised by people who bore the scars of Jim Crow’s origins, became the foot soldiers in a battle against the ugly persistence of racism in housing, education, employment, and the legal system. Swept into action decades ago, many of those who survived struggle still. They did not cease their efforts because the 1960s became the 1970s, the 1990s became the 2000s, or because pundits and commentators proclaimed the movement dead and gone.
What keeps them going is fury that violence still haunts the land, that their children and grandchildren, their unknown fellow citizens of the world, live in a world of injustices made by race and class as well as gender, sexuality, ability, and nation. What keeps them going is the hard-fought realization that, even if change is difficult, the status quo is only guaranteed through apathy and indecision.
What keeps them going is love.
Love has long been associated with Christian pacifist tradition, an unquestionably large influence on the Southern civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. But the love I speak of here is not turn-the-other-cheek endurance. I mean something both more basic and more expansive. Love—for people, for struggle, for possibility—is where we seek to unify what we believe with what we do, to bring our best selves in service of an other. Love is an experiment and a leap of faith, a mixture of beliefs and practices, and in that process, it becomes a potent way to understand the long-haul commitments of those who join, and sustain, the fight for freedom.3
Inveterate organizer Ella Baker captured this spirit. Baker began her fight against racism and capitalism in the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression. She worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the 1950s, until she could no longer stomach its patriarchal structure. Preferring to stay in the background, she served as an advisor and mentor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the organization whose youthful members comprised the front lines of the battle against Jim Crow. In a 1964 speech, the sixty-year-old Baker described the object of her commitment. “Because as far as I’m concerned, I was never working for an organization, I have always tried to work for a cause. And the cause to me is bigger than any organization, bigger than any group of people, and it is the cause of humanity. The cause is the cause that brings us together. The drive of the human spirit for freedom.”4
When Baker talked of the human spirit for freedom, she was speaking of the love that animates the heart of the organizer. Freedom is a love story. It is cacophonous and seamless, beautiful and tedious. Both felt and enacted, the practice of freedom is full of excitement and heartbreak. The thrill of discovery, of recognizing yourself and your aspirations in someone, something, beyond yourself. The joy and the anxiety, the exploration and the endurance that guide a loving human relationship can be found in the political realm as well, where the dream of possibility leads people to take big risks on the gamble that love might reward them their dreams.
Love clouds as well as inspires. It sharpens our appreciation of unnoticed features and blinds us to imperfections. It constricts attention while it expands our sense of the world. Love is not a zero-sum phenomenon: it is not something won or lost, good or bad. It is an encompassing relation. Love is the process through which people battle with the family that raised them and choose the family that sustains them. No less than the fight for freedom itself, love can be a source of hardship and exhaustion, of pain and loss, of sacrifice and redress. Love regenerates. It is the impulse to keep going.
Observers often limit the emotional register of social action to naivete, or to anger. Yet grassroots organizing resembles life’s other great creative pursuits. As in music so with grassroots politics: experimentation and improvisation reign. John Coltrane offers insight into the emotional complexity. During a UK tour in 1961, the jazz saxophonist explained his approach. “I’ve been told my playing is ‘angry,’” Coltrane said of his exuberant style. “Well, you know musicians have many moods, angry, happy, sad.” Coltrane rejected what he saw as the projection of critics. “Change is inevitable in our music—things change,” the celebrated auteur of the Black avant-garde explained. Coltrane himself had changed, having recently headed up his own quartet after playing a supporting role for jazz greats Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. “I used to plan routines like mad,” he said of shifting from ensemble to lead, “now I don’t have to plan so much, as I learn and get freer.” Experimentation was the linkage between education and freedom. “Sometimes we start from nothing.… I know how it’s going to end—but sometimes not what might happen in between!”5
- “Beautiful, inspiring, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and thought-provoking…Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)
- "A page turner.… a critical text to help the current generation of radicals, the Black Lives Matter activists, study lessons of lives well-lived.” —Facing South
- “Both personal and with a big-picture view—a welcome contribution to the literature of the civil rights movement.”—Kirkus
- Stayed On Freedom is a movement story and a love story all wrapped together. It does not avoid or elide the problems and contradictions of a movement life—the traumas and costs, disappointments and betrayals. Dan Berger assembles a sensitive, honest, and beautiful intergenerational account of the extraordinary lives of Michael and Zoharah Simmons, their kin and comrades, and the worlds they dreamed and, still, try to create. Stayed On Freedom not only compels us to rethink the Black freedom movement but radically alters our understanding of love and struggle.—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams and Thelonious Monk
- Dan Berger yet again brings together superb research, a deep commitment to justice, and beautiful writing in Stayed On Freedom. This is a rare intimate portrait of the stakes, evolution, and expansiveness of the Black freedom movement that will join classic texts on this period. —Imani Perry, New York Times bestselling author of South to America
- "Stayed On Freedom is a triumph of storytelling. Dan Berger generously offers an ever-blooming portrait of two people's struggle without reducing their story to struggle alone. This is a deeply loving, deeply caring text that is both tender and ferocious in approach."—Hanif Abdurraqib, author of A Little Devil in America
- “Dan Berger is one of our most gifted historians of Black radical thought and activism of the 1960s and 1970s. By way of a political biography of two relatively unknown organizers, Michael Simmons and Zoharah Simmons, Berger casts the spotlight away from already known figures and unearths the work of ordinary Black people in sustaining the Black radical movement known as Black Power in the late 1960s and beyond. Told through the experiences of rank-and-file movement participants, Stayed On Freedom powerfully refutes the conventional wisdom of Black Power as the destructive undoing of good will created by the Civil Rights Movement, instead showing it to be propelled by love and an abiding desire for freedom. An original and necessary book.”—Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
- "I have to praise this book in at least three ways. In the literary sense, this is some of the best historical storytelling I have ever read. Politically speaking, we need more histories like this, that move beyond the individual and examine how liberation moves through interpersonal relationships, and we need to do it like Dan Berger does it, with love. And personally speaking, this book is a literal revelation! I've known this family for most of my adult life and I learned things from this book I would have never otherwise known. This book is a miracle, a model, and a must-read. Thank you Dan Berger!"—Alexis Pauline Gumbs, author of Undrowned
- On Sale
- Jan 24, 2023
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Basic Books