Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons

SNCC, Georgia, Mississippi, 1962-1968
857 SW 50th Way
Gainesville, FL zip_code:
Phone: 352-367-0529

Oral-History Interview

I become involved in the CRM as a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia during my freshman year in 1962. I participated in marches and sit-ins in efforts to desegregate lunch counters, restaurants, movie theaters and the fight for decent jobs at department stores and other places of business.

I also began to go to the SNCC office between classes or at other times — though it was against Spelman's rules. To have been caught going there could have been grounds for suspension or even expulsion. At the office, I helped with clerical duties, even helped with cleaning the office as it was often in need of such services. I began meeting SNCC Atlanta Office Staff but even more significant was meeting the field staff when they came in from Mississippi, Alabama, SW Georgia, or other places where SNCC had staff. These brave young women and men had a profound effect on me and became my heroes and sheroes.

In my 2nd year of college, going against my families' admonitions to not get involved as well as the threats from the school, I become more involved with our local college affiliate of SNCC: The Committee on Appeal for Human Rights. A friend from Morehouse who was one of the main organizers of the Committee, Larry Fox, convinced me to run for the office of Representative to SNCC's Coordinating Committee. I was selected which in many ways sealed my fate to become much more involved with SNCC and more deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

This was 1963 and SNCC had begun thinking about what could be done to "crack" Mississippi open and bring the Nation's attention to the fact that African Americans could not register to vote in most of that state. And to expose the fact that those who attempted to vote were subject to violent reprisals and even death.

Becoming a member of SNCC's Coordinating Committee enabled me to hear some of the discussions about what would become the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project and the plan to recruit, train and send upwards of 1000 college Students to Mississippi in the Summer of 1964 to bring the eyes of the world onto that racist, terrorist state for Black People.

The Laurel Project went from being in a town with no Movement infrastructure of any kind to one able to host 23 Volunteers, run a successful Freedom School that taught students from K through 12, having possibly the only Freedom Day Car Center in the State, to organizing a vibrant county (Jones) chapter of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

The Project continued after most of the volunteers left at the end of August. But I, along with two volunteers from California (Marian Davidson from Palo Alto and Lynell Barrett from Los Angeles), continued the Project until November of 1965. We were joined by three Mississippi Natives, Charles (Ben) Hartfield and Ulysses Everett from Hattiesburg and John Handy from Greenwood, MS.

I then went to work in SNCC's New York office as a "College and High School Friends of SNCC Organizer." My NY stint was cut short when I was asked to return South to Atlanta to help with organizing the Julian Bond re-election campaign. After successfully getting Bond re-elected, the office became the headquarters for the Atlanta Project of SNCC.

Some historians say that this was SNCC's first truly urban project in that it had to address many of the same issues confronting municipalities across the Nation with large poor inner-city Black communities to this day. We organized around poor housing, food insecurity, police violence, and lack of quality education. We also had to address alcohol and drug addition, homelessness, as well as political and social alienation. Blacks in Atlanta could vote, but many often felt that there was no reason to vote. Atlanta had some Black elected officials already. Yet many felt it had made no difference in their own lives, personally. The Project set out to convince them that they had power and that they could change things.

The Project members collectively wrote what The NY Times named "SNCC's Position Paper on Black Power." This collective writing effort grew out of project members own experiences with white-supremacy and Black internalized racism as well as with what we were experiencing as organizers in Vine City, Atlanta. One of the poorest areas in the city.

This project was also in the forefront of SNCC's Anti-Vietnam War effort with a specific focus on ending the military draft. Here again our own experiences with the drafting of Black men in Atlanta and in SNCC's own ranks led us to organize and speak out against a draft that sent Black men to kill and die for a bfreedomb they did not have here at home.

I left SNCC in early 1968 to join the Staff of the National Council of Negro Women's Ford Foundation funded, "Project WomanPower" becoming that Project's Mid-West Field Director.

© Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons.


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