From SNCC to Black Lives Matter: Longtime Activists Discuss Black Liberation

Once they met in 1965, Gwendolyn Zoharah and Michael Simmons had already devoted their lives to organizing to topple Jim Crow. Each had been members of the Pupil Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights group that emerged from the sit-ins and civil disobedience all through the South. Like a lot of their SNCC co-organizers, each had been arrested, attacked and estranged from their organic households for his or her motion actions. Quickly after, they fell in love, bought married, began a household and continued urgent for civil rights, Black Energy and an finish to the conflict in Vietnam. In 1967, rising disagreements in regards to the position of Black Energy culminated of their expulsion from the SNCC. Even after their ouster and after their marriage disintegrated, the 2 remained dedicated to combating oppression via grassroots organizing, each collectively and individually.

Creator and historian Dan Berger spent years interviewing Zoharah and Simmons about their many years within the motion. He contextualized their recollections with analysis from the collections on the Schomburg Heart for Analysis in Black Tradition; the American Buddies Service Committee, the place each Zoharah and Simmons labored after their ouster from the SNCC; and the scattered archives of SNCC and different grassroots teams. What emerged was a joint biography of the Black Energy motion in the US via the experiences of 1 household who had dedicated their lives to the battle for justice, entitled Stayed On Freedom.

Berger, Zoharah and Simmons sat down with Truthout to debate their forthcoming ebook, what Black Energy means to them and the way the battle for justice is a protracted course of.

Victoria Legislation: Why did you determine to put in writing Stayed On Freedom? Who’s it for?

Dan Berger: I first met Zoharah as an undergraduate. Listening to her tales impressed me to do my very own studying on the civil rights motion, and I noticed that a few of the issues that she was speaking about didn’t exist within the literature.

That really inspired me to write the book. As I was writing it, it also became about building a life on the left, being a parent, becoming middle aged and thinking about how we stay involved and stay committed, and how we keep learning and growing over a lifetime and not become ossified into one rigid framework. I hope that the book can be of value to people who are asking similar questions.

Gwendolyn Zoharah: When Dan tossed the idea, I said, “You gotta be kidding. Nobody’s gonna be interested in us ‘nobody’ foot soldiers.”

I had met Dan when he was a freshman here at the University of Florida and stayed in touch with him all these years. I’m very impressed with the other books he had written and the work he was doing and I was honored that he wanted to do this.

Cover for Stayed On Freedom: The Long History of Black Power through One Family’s Journey
(Courtesy of Basic Books)

We participated in years of interviews. We’re talking 60 years [of organizing]. To think about the work that Michael and I have been engaged in, both together and separately, and all of the research Dan was doing to contextualize the work, has been a relearning experience.

And given that I’m still out here on the battlefield, as we used to say, and working with younger activists, it’s good to be able to share not only what I recall, but what now has been documented, with the younger organizers I’m working with in Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, and other groups.

Michael Simmons: [What] I really wanted to capture — particularly having worked in Europe over the last 20 years — was for people to see that struggle was constant and that we who are oppressed don’t have the option to quit.

Berger: It’s so important that this is a story of two foot soldiers and everyday organizers. Most social change is made by people that you’ve never heard of. So many of our narratives of how change happens are told through famous speeches, given typically by men, and it just misses so much of the actual process through which change happens.

Being involved in struggle changes the person who’s involved in struggle as well as changing the larger social order. That’s so important, but you only get that when you look at the grassroots and not just at the famous male leadership.

The subtitle of this book is “The long history of black power through one family’s journey.” Can you talk more about tracing the movement through the lens of a family?

Berger: We often talk about Black Power as a late ‘60s and early ‘70s phenomena. It’s typically geographically bounded as well as very temporally bounded: We have the civil rights movement in the South and we have Black Power movement in the North; civil rights as a nonviolent thing in the South and Black Power as this gun toting, beret-wearing thing in the North. I’m being a little bit glib, but not too much relative to how the story is often told.

Author and historian Dan Berger.
(Photo by Marc Studer)

When we actually study what it meant in people’s lives, things are much messier. And the fact that Zoharah was born and raised in the South, and Michael was born and raised in the North, and they both contributed to the development of Black Power as a phenomenon, as a politic, within one of the standard-bearer organizations of the civil rights movement already throws that whole conventional story out of whack.

When you learn about their lives, and listen to them talk about their lives, you see that Black Power has an imprint that extends well beyond that narrow time period. In fact, groups like the National Black Independent Political Party and the Philadelphia Workers’ Organizing Committee, two examples the ebook talks about, each come out of Black Energy in several methods.

Zoharah: I used to be born in 1944, I grew up in Jim Crow — again of the bus, no place to have a meal inside, except in some Black-owned cafe, the entire thing. Memphis, Tennessee, the place I used to be born and raised, was a segregated metropolis. And I used to be introduced as much as know my place. I imply, not that anyone was educating me that it was proper, however they might train me it as survival. My grandmother would say, “There’s nothing we are able to do about it if they arrive and get you. We’ve got no approach of defending you.” I grew up with that.

After which to go to Mississippi, which was even worse. A minimum of in Memphis, my grandmother and granddad might vote. However in fact, they may vote just for white individuals.

However to expertise Mississippi Freedom Summer time, the organizing of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Get together, the violence that we had been subjected to, moved me towards understanding that, past breaking down the Jim Crow legal guidelines and securing the proper to vote for Black individuals, we wanted energy.

I nonetheless assume that Black individuals on this nation want Black Energy. This isn’t in any solution to speak about a separatist agenda, although I used to be drawn to that — becoming a member of the Nation of Islam, turning into part of the Republic of New Afrika, and being drawn to the liberation actions in Africa. However the place I’d say I’m now’s that we’d like a mixture of components from each of those strands throughout the Black Freedom Motion.

Simmons: I grew up within the North, however I hung out within the South throughout my childhood, going again to go to household. When individuals ask me about my civil rights consciousness, I all the time begin with Emmett Until as a result of it was the primary time that phrases like “racism” and “civil rights” meant one thing to me. I noticed that Emmett Until might have simply been me. I had completely no concern once I was within the South. My cousins would warn me about white individuals and I used to be like, “Get out of right here, these white people frightened of us, they’re not gonna hassle us.” And [until Till’s murder], I had this very flip perspective in regards to the potential of any hurt coming to me or anybody that I used to be round. That, plus Little Rock and college desegregation a few years later. These two realities set firmly in my thoughts. As I began listening to in regards to the Freedom Rides, my mind bought centered.

There’s nothing distinctive about Black Energy when you consider it when it comes to oppressed individuals controlling their destinies. On the time, I noticed it in a Black context. However the work I’ve performed over the previous 20, 25 years, I see that it’s as vital in Japanese Europe, working in Yugoslavia with oppressed ladies, with Roma, as it’s in Jackson, Mississippi, or Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s a query of oppressed individuals controlling their lives.

Dan, you mentioned Gwendolyn and Michael advised you tales that you just didn’t discover within the current literature. Are you able to share a kind of tales?

Berger: One of many essential issues was the Atlanta Challenge. I keep in mind listening to Zoharah speak about how Black Energy emerged throughout the SNCC and what Black Energy was attempting to do throughout the SNCC, that Black Energy was about each self-determination and having white individuals confronting racism at its supply.

Then I appeared on the civil rights scholarship — this was 20 years in the past — and see the Atlanta Challenge described as this tremendous sectarian group of northerners who invaded the SNCC and destroyed the group.

With one exception that I can consider, that’s been the narrative of the Atlanta Challenge to the extent that anybody talks about it, which isn’t that a lot — that the Atlanta Challenge destroyed the SNCC, that they had been separatists who had no background within the group and no background within the motion.

That’s why the Atlanta Challenge occupies heart stage within the ebook — actually in the midst of the ebook, but additionally figuratively in that it will get two chapters.

I interviewed Michael for [my previous book] Captive Nation. Quite a lot of his experiences in prisons [for being a conscientious objector and refusing the military draft], a number of of that are additionally captured on this ebook, present how unstable U.S. prisons had been within the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. There have been protests and demonstrations. They present that the Atlanta Jail Farm in 1966 and the Allenwood penitentiary in 1970 had been experiencing these sorts of profound challenges.

It’s not simply the Atticas or the San Quentins. It’s not simply the notorious prisons with the rebellions that had been nationally broadcast or that individuals had been writing books about. [In other prisons,] there have been protests and sit-ins and other people cussing out the guards. That was simply par for the course. Figuring out this helps us perceive not solely the centrality of jail and jail to this type of motion expertise, but additionally how a lot energy individuals had, even inside that context.

What would you like readers to remove from your loved ones historical past and this ebook?

Zoharah: That the battle for social change for social justice is a protracted course of. It builds on what has come earlier than. And hopefully, people who find themselves social change organizers and activists will perceive that it is a lifetime dedication.

Simmons: That about sums it up for me. There’s a track we used to sing within the SNCC known as “Freedom is a Constant Struggle.” And that’s actually what it’s.

I would really like individuals to a minimum of come away understanding that Black Energy was about love. It wasn’t about hostility to something aside from oppression. In the course of the heyday, one of the crucial intense struggles within the SNCC, we had been by no means anti-white or in opposition to white individuals. We all the time had white relations, however we had philosophical and political variations.

Berger: We’ve got extra energy than we acknowledge, and that the motion is larger than our contexts. It’s larger than no matter group we’re in in the mean time. And we are able to each perceive that we’re extra highly effective than we predict, but additionally that we’re a part of this larger factor.

This interview has been calmly edited for readability.