Lesson 142:
Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons

An ongoing illustrative history study
This piece originally posted 2/12/2024


Prelude | 136 | 137 | 138 | 139 | 140 | 141 | 142 | 143 | 144 >> | Email

"[Nonviolence is] not the easy way, but it's the only way to bring about deep social change that will last."

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons.  Watercolour and colored pencil with some pen & ink, 2.5 in. x 3.5 in. Everybody say hello to Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons: activist, teacher, and researcher. Born in 1944 Memphis, Gwendolyn was the first generation in her family to attend college (Spelman, 1962). She credits her grandmother, Rhonda Bell Robinson, with having instilled in her the family's history and its reckoning with slavery, her own hardships growing up as a sharecropper, and how Mississippi was objectively the "worst of the worst" for Black people. Gwendolyn solemnly promised her grandmother that she would never go to Mississippi.

(And don't even get her started on the epic confrontations with teachers and school officials about the "inappropriateness of her hair." Boy, it's sure nice that that sort of racial dress-code pettiness isn't a thing anymore, huh?)

In the 1960's, inspired by several Spelman professors (to include Howard Zinn), Gwendolyn actively and enthusiastically became involved in the SNCC against her family's wishes. She participated in sit-ins and endured several arrests, ultimately jeopardizing her Spelman scholarship. She helped prepare curricula for Freedom Schools and coordinated mock voter registrations, working under Bob Moses (see Lesson 112 in this series) and alongside James Forman and her fellow Spelman alum Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson (see Lesson 66). Eventually she came into the orbit of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (see Lessons 51, 112, 120, and 133 in this series), and ultimately found herself taking over as director of the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964 when its previous director, Lester McKinney, had been picked up by Laurel police. She herself was arrested in Jackson following a march; being held, beaten and tortured for 15 days in a makeshift prison constructed on the county fairgrounds.

Gwendolyn later moved briefly to New York, and then to Atlanta where she worked on Julian Bond's state campaign (see Lesson 72). She continued to work with the local chapter of the SNCC, authoring a controversial position paper on Black Power that argued against expelling its white members. Around this time Gwendolyn also (unsurprisingly) found herself on the FBI's notorious Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) target list.

Inspired by the speeches of Malcolm X, Gwendolyn joined Nation Of Islam in the late 1960's and changed her name to Zoharah (also taking her husband Michael Simmons' last name), and moved to Philadelphia. However her strong feminist principles contravened a number of NOI teachings, putting her at odds with the organization's stance on women as submissive helpmeets. Over the next 20 years she worked for the American Friends Service Committee, travelling to Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and (significantly) Palestine.

Gwendolyn retired from the University of Florida in 2019; conducting and leading research that explores Islamic feminism and the cultural impact of Sharia law on Muslim women. Today Simmons is senior lecturer emerita, continuing to travel and lecture on gender equality, and on many other issues affecting Black Americans, feminism, and social inequities. Her and Michael Simmons' daughter Aishah Shahidah Simmons, is herself an accomplished documentary filmmaker.

Watch a comprehensive, absorbing interview with Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons in September 2011.
Highly recommended: https://www.loc.gov/item/2015669148/

Recommended reading: "From Little Memphis Girl to Mississippi Amazon," as published in
Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, University of Illinois Press (2010)



Next page - Lesson 143: Lucien Victor Alexis, Sr.


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