16 February, 1995

[Michael Simmons was a SNCC activist in Arkansas, Virginia, and Georgia from 1965-1967.]

Michael Simmons, Coordinator
Joint International/Peace Education
East-West Program

I welcome the opportunity to speak with you today about the African American Freedom Movement, commonly known as the Civil Rights Movement. In my travels in Central Europe over the past eight years and particularly the past five years, I have had casual conversations with many Europeans regarding the African American Freedom Movement. Most people think that there were some problems for African Americans, Martin Luther King had a dream and then everything was OK.

Although we do not have time for a full discussion of the African American Freedom movement, I hope that by the time we spend these few moments together I will have raised enough issues that challenge this simplistic view of history.

First, I would like to read a passage from one of the best books written to date on the African American Freedom Movement, Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch. To save time I will read a composite of the situation described below. I chose this passage to give you an idea of the political and social environment which civil rights activists endured.

The context for this passage is from the early days of the Movement known as the Freedom Rides. The Freedom Rides were instituted by university students such as yourselves in 1961. The issue was challenging the racist law that made it illegal for African Americans to sit in a designated white section of a bus, bus station, or use the toilet. They did have what were called colored waiting rooms and toilets, but they were usually filthy and the toilets seldom worked.

The apartheid policy in the U.S., known as segregation, meant that African Americans who traveled to the South, had to move to the back of the bus or train when they reached Washington, D.C. Starting in Washington, D.C. and going further South, African Americans had to use separate entrances to both inferior waiting room facilities and toilets. The following is one of the many situations which the students encountered as they challenged these law;

The bus driver told the Freedom Riders that they would be in mortal danger when they reached Anniston, Alabama. Upon arriving, they saw a large crowd of men bearing clubs, bricks, iron pipes, and knives. They tried to force open the bus door. They began to beat on the bus with pipes and slashed the tires. The bus driver escaped by driving down the highway at a high rate of speed with the driving down the highway at a high rate of speed with the mob in hot pursuit. The mob grew to fifty cars, containing as many as two hundred men (there were nine Freedom Riders on the bus). Soon the driver realized that some of his slashed tires were going flat. The driver, who also was white (African Americans were not hired as bus drivers), stopped the bus and escaped, leaving the Freedom Riders on the bus.

This time the mob used bricks and a heavy chain to smash the bus windows one by one, sending glass flying among the passengers inside. The attackers ripped open the luggage compartment and battered the exterior again with pipes, while a group of them tried to force open the door. Finally., someone threw a firebomb through the gaping hole in the back window. As flames ran along the floor, some of the seats caught fire and the bus began to fill with smoke.

When the choking passengers realized that the fire could not be contained, they gave way to panic. The mob was no longer trying to force entry but now was barricading the door to seal them in the fire. A state policeman pulled his gun to force the mob to fall back. When they managed to get the door open the mob began to punch at the escaping Freedom Riders and knocking at least one of them unconscious. The attacks continued until the state police fired warning shots into the air.

I should add that the police, including President Kennedy, had been warned by many different people that this level of violence was possible and failed to take adequate precaution for domestic and political reasons. None of the perpetrators were arrested, and had they been, would have been acquitted. At that time, white people were not convicted of crimes against African Americans in the South, and seldom in the North.

By beginning my story at this point, you can get a feel for the danger that was awaiting the 1960 civil rights activist. This is not the worst example — at least no one died. It merely reflected some of what African Americans had to go. through during this period.

Growing up in the North with parents who were born and raised in the South, I heard many stories about the living conditions for African Americans in the South, but it did not mean much to me and my experiences. However, in 1955, when I was 10, a young Chicago teenager named Emmet Till, was hung and burned to death while waiting to be tried for "reckless eyeballing." This charge meant he was looking at a white woman. He also was accused of whistling at her. With the permission of the police, he was taken from a jail cell by a mob.

This experience made a big impression on my young mind because I, like most Northern African Americans of my generation, went South during the summer months to visit relatives. In fact, my cousins use to warn me about my habit of whistling because a white women might think I was whistling at her. I use to laugh at their concern but after the death of Emmet Till I understood that their concern was more than a joke.

Turning 15 in 1960 and entering high school I had a huge interest in the growing civil rights movement, but the media only had sporadic news coverage. Apart from the Freedom Riders, the biggest news stories from the "Movement", as it began to be called by African American activists, was the 3,000 U.S. army troops it took to get one African American student enrolled at the University of Mississippi in 1962.

In 1963, I watched as the police used German shepherd dogs and high powered water hoses to attack African American high school students (like me) who were protesting American apartheid in Birmingham, Alabama. The assassination of Mississippi civil rights leader Medger Evers was another event that I monitored on television and newspapers.

The 250,000 people who marched on Washington in August 1963 was a high point for many African Americans. Nevertheless, this euphoria was shattered by the bomb that struck Birmingham, Alabama's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killing four adolescent young girls.

During my senior year a local Philadelphia civil rights organization was demonstrating at a school construction site over the issue of hiring African American construction workers. Since I could not be in the excitement of the southern movement I was reading and hearing about, I leaped at the opportunity to be in a demonstration. The fact that two friends of mine had been beaten the previous day at the demonstration site by police caused me some fear — but I never considered retreating from my decision. I have always felt that there is nothing wrong about acknowledging your fear — important part is to not let the fear control you. As it turned out, my first demonstration was uneventful, but I was exhilarated.

I entered college in the Fall of 1963, but my mind was on the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, in part because every young man was having to face the military draft, I began to educate myself on the war in Vietnam. I know that my country had a good international reputation for championing human rights in Eastern Europe, but I never took their proclamations seriously. The most ardent backers of the war in Vietnam (in the name of fighting for democracy) were the same Southern politicians who were responsible for the repression and oppression of African Americans.

In 1964, college students, particularly white college students, were being recruited, to come South and work in the Civil Rights Movement for the summer. The thinking behind it was cynical understanding of the American reality. Over the years violence toward African Americans from local and state police had been viewed as "unfortunate." Civil Rights activists knew if similar things were to happen to whites, particularly young white people, something would be done about it. Indeed, what is considered "unfortunate" for African Americans is "outrageous."

Tragically this assumption proved to show an astute awareness of the U.S. psychic. Before the official start of the Mississippi Summer Project, three civil rights workers, two white and one black were killed. For the first time the FBI performed their duty and really looked for the bodies of the victims. While dragging the Mississippi River they found so many unidentified African American bodies that the search was temporally called off because of the embarrassment of government officials.

My poor academic start in college stopped me from leaving school during that summer because I had to prove to myself that I could do university work. I have since come to understand that, while there are some smart people who go to college — college does not make you smart, college teaches you marketable skills if you are lucky, but it is up to you to get educated. It was the last time that I let college interfere with my education. By the way, I finally "made" the dean's list in my junior and senior years.

In the Spring of 1965 many African Americans were brutality attacked in Selma, Alabama marching for the right to vote. In response to the Selma Movement my best friend and I, along with a few other students, organized a march of nearly three thousand students in Philadelphia to protest the beatings and the inaction of the federal and state government to the beatings. Later, I used my Spring break to visit the Atlanta based national office of the Student Non- Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC (pronounced "snick") was the most militant national mainstream civil rights group. SNCC was considered the "shock troops" of the Movement. SNCC staff received $10.00 ($9.64 after taxes) per week. For housing, we lived with families in the communities in which we worked or in a SNCC "freedom house." SNCC worked to build local leadership rather than becoming the leadership.

The summer of 1965 I left school to go South and joined SNCC. I told my parents that it was only for the summer but I knew that I no intention of returning to school.

I worked in President Bill Clinton's State of Arkansas. I worked on voter registration projects that meant going door-to-door to convince people who were justifiably afraid of losing their jobs and/or their life to register to vote. We held voter education classes (African American voter applicants had to interpret aspects of the U.S. or their State constitution as a step to becoming a registered voter). [See also Voting Rights — Are You Qualified to Vote?.]

The 1964 Civil Rights Act had been passed with its public accommodation provision. This provision declared the act of denying a person service in a public establishment based on race, color or creed illegal. We would go to public places in an act we called "testing" to see if they would serve us.

Often they would refuse service by closing the restaurant or swimming pool. In some cases they would stay closed for months and even go out of business. In other situations we would get arrested for "disturbing the peace." It was not until the 1970's that this part of the civil rights bill was fully implemented. I should add that in many Southern counties, officials would close the entire public school system and declare them private academies to prevent African-American youth from getting a quality education.

SNCC had a fleet of cars that were as identifiable as the FBI vehicles. This meant that we were always in danger of being shot at by any local white resident. Many SNCC workers would refuse to drive because the driver was usually the one who was the target. Perhaps the most freighting aspect of this situation was that the police would stop the cars and wait until a gang of whites arrived. The police would then turn their backs while civil rights workers were beaten. The police would also stop the cars and arrest SNCC workers and allow mobs to get them out of jail and beat or kill them. Or they would let the mobs know when people were being released and then the mobs would follow the SNCC worker out of town and then attack. I am focusing on SNCC workers, but this happened to anyone identified with the Movement, black or white.

Once, I went to a car repair store in Arkansas to exchange a part. The owner recognized my car and three men in the store tried to grab me. I ran out of the store and jump into my car. The man came to the door and pointed a gun at me while I was ducking trying to start the car. I pulled off the way you see people do in a movie during a chase scene. I went to the local sheriff to report the incident. The sheriff arrested me for disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace and resisting arrest! I was tried, convicted and given a thirty day suspended sentence and told to leave the county. I did not leave the county.

I then went to the local FBI agent to report that my civil rights had been violated. He was very sympathetic and took my statement. His name was Agent Smart. Agent Smart told me that nothing would happen but I should stay in touch with him and he would help me any way that he could. I felt that I had a friend in high places.

A few months later there were massive arrests of young students in Forest City, Arkansas over school integration. Over 300 people were arrested and the police were looking for two particular members of SNCC who they incorrectly had labeled the leaders of the protest. One night about eight of us were in the SNCC Freedom House when about 25 police officers broke in with guns drawn and beating their five battery flashlights in their hands to imply that our heads were next.

They put us up against the wall and began to threaten us. At the end of the police line I saw a familiar face — it was my friend Agent Smart. I said, "Agent Smart I... .", And before I could finish my thought Agent Smart said, "shut the fuck up you black son of a bitch and get up against the wall." This was 1965 and I had just turned 20. It was a baptism for me in U.S. democratic duplicity — a lesson Rodney King and the many Rodney Kings are learning daily.

As the Civil Rights Movement intensified, U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew and many men were being drafted into the military. While there was an enormous debate going on in the white community regarding the morality of the war, the overwhelming majority of African Americans opposed the war. We had enough sense to know that the freedom of Vietnamese people could not possibly be the issue given what the u.S. was doing to African American citizens.

Like all the U.S. wars, with the possible exception of World War II, it was the poorest of the U.S. population — white, brown and African American — who were in the front lines. The high school I attended in Philadelphia, for example, had the highest Vietnam per capita casualty rate of any school in the country. As you may have guessed, my high school was comprised of poor African Americans and whites. Many of the white students who were my classmates had parents who had emigrated from Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine and other areas in this region.

As early as 1960 African American leaders such as Malcom X had denounced the war. In 1966, SNCC formally opposed the war and Dr. Martin Luther King followed a year later.

Unlike many whites who opposed the war, African American war protesters were severely punished. SNCC worker Julian Bond who had been elected to the Georgia Legislature was denied his seat; Muhammad Ali had his World (not U.S.) Heavy Weight Championship title taken from him for three years. Financial support for civil rights activity dried up, and African American civil rights activists began receiving draft notices.

I was one of those who received a draft notice shortly after SNCC publicly opposed the war. My case is too long to go into at this point, however suffice it to say they the government never even gave me the chance to refuse — or accept — induction [into the Army]. They first arrested me and kept me in for jail for two months for trying to go into the induction center. Later they convicted me for draft refusal even though I never had the opportunity to refuse. They said that my previous actions indicated that I had no intention of going into the army. I spent two years and six months in jail as a result.

During my stay in jail I, along with others, organized the 1 first work stoppage that had ever occurred in this particular jail. I also organized my fellow inmates into a theater group. I wrote and directed a play that, due to outside pressure, was performed at a local university and appeared on television.

In conclusion I would like to add a few comments to summarized this review of a life. First, I do not want you to think that my comments indicate that I do not like my country. I love my county and I think it is a great country. However, the people who made it great do not get the credit. Except for the first 10 amendments to the United States constitution, America's greatness has come from social movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, Native American Movement, Chicano Movement, Trade Union Movement (which was led by many people from this region), the Multi-racial Women's Movement, the Gay and Lesbian Movement and other social movements. America's greatness is the result of the determination of its oppressed people to make democracy work. Democracy and justice are too important to leave to the politicians.

My oppression as an African American has led me to fight against the oppression of others. How could I justify my life if I were to become racist; not struggle with my own and against others sexism and homophobia. The morality of my struggle, my people and I would be denigrated and should be treated as a limited act of selfishness.

You too have an obligation to not let the dramatic morale events that have swept over this region in the past five years be cheapened and denigrated. A Romanian can not let Hungarians be oppressed in Romania; a Bulgarian can not let Turkish people be oppressed in Bulgaria, Hungarians can not look the other way when a skin-head attacks an African student. The verbal and physical abuse of Romani or Gypsies cannot be tolerated. You should feel shame when a woman says that her life was better under the old system because of the rise in sexist behavior. You should feel ashamed when I tell you that I, as an African American, felt safer in the streets of Eastern Europe under communism than I do today.

The struggle for democracy and human rights is not an event — it is an ongoing process. It is not a benign process but demands constant vigilance and struggle. You cannot use this new freedom to settle old debts from another era. As humanity goes into the next century we must find a way to leave the old wounds in this century and build just societies. We can settle for nothing less. When it comes to standing up for the dignity of all human beings regardless of race, color, creed, gender or sexual orientation, I hope that you will join me in disturbing the peace.

I thank you for your time and attention.

Copyright © 1995, Michael Simmons

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