Remembering the civil rights movement at the grassroots
Joy Lyman, one of the museum's Freedom School Scholars, will moderate the National Youth Summit on Freedom Summer on February 5, 2014. Joy hosts the latest episode of the History Explorer podcast series, featuring the experiences of activist Zoharah Simmons from a presentation by the museum's Program in African American Culture in 2000 called "Fighting for My Rights." Joy reflects on how the Civil Rights Movement can be better taught to encompass the complexity of the story.
School doesn't always allow time for students to get more than a superficial account of civil rights history that generally only touches on Martin Luther King, Jr., as the leader of the movement, Malcolm X disturbing the peace, and President Lyndon Johnson passing civil rights legislation. There's just too much content to cover in one year. But there are so many people in addition to the universally recognized icons who came together to create the civil rights movement.
Zoharah Simmons, a civil rights activist who helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, a voter registration and education initiative in 1964, recounted her experiences in a panel discussion in 2000 called "Fighting for My Rights." Her words can teach us a lot about the importance of lesser known civil rights activists.
Ms. Simmons became increasingly involved in the civil rights movement by working as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteer until she eventually became one of the organizers of the Mississippi Freedom Summer. She sacrificed her relationship with her family and her good standing at her university in order to help her country change for the better. In "Fighting for My Rights," she said that her school threatened to revoke her scholarship when they learned about her activism, and her parents removed her from school against her will and kept her "imprisoned" for two weeks.
During her time at home, though, Ms. Simmons secretly planned to travel to Mississippi for the Freedom Summer Project, which she had decided to join "in spite of what I knew about Mississippi, because all my life I had been told […] if you were against the system there, they were definitely going to kill you." Ms. Simmons refused to give up the fight: "I told my folks that you can't make me stay here against my will, and they said, 'Well, if you leave, don't ever come back.' And so I left."
Because I am only months removed from my time at university and still very close with my family, Ms. Simmons' sacrifice is particularly striking to me. She made the decision to forgo both her full-ride scholarship and the love of her family, as well as her safety, in order to educate the people of Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Stories like Ms. Simmons' can remind young people of their privilege and where it came from. Often, we don't hear the stories of the local activists, but these lesser known, relatable stories made it possible for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to hold the attention of the nation in the way he did.
In closing her story, Ms. Simmons said, "My grandmother died when she was 96, and she had never forgiven me." How many of us can understand this kind of sacrifice? In what ways can we recognize all those who sacrificed for equality?
Joy Lyman is a 2013 graduate of the University of Michigan and will moderate the Smithsonian's 2014 National Youth Summit.