Gwen Robinson (Zoharah Simmons)
August 9, 1944 –
Raised in Memphis, TN
Gwendolyn “Gwen” Robinson (later Zoharah Simmons) was on her way to a comfortable middle class life when she entered Spelman College as a student. But her defiant desire for change illustrated how deeply the conditions in the Deep South affected the young African American men and women who became part of SNCC. She volunteered for the Mississippi 1964 Summer Project against her family’s wishes and headed for Laurel with the intention of becoming a Freedom School teacher. Unexpected circumstances quickly catapulted her into the role of project director, a position she held for over a year into the fall of 1965.
She had gone to Laurel with project director Lester McKinney to see if they could find local support for working there. McKinney, however, was picked up by Mississippi police on an old warrant and never returned, leaving Simmons the job. She began searching for local people in Laurel who would be willing to build a local office. Among those she met were Mrs. Susie Ruffin, Mrs. Carrie Clayton, and NAACP member Mrs. Euberta Sphinks, who told her while Simmons was standing at her door, “Come in. I’ve been waiting on you all my life.”
Gwendolyn Robinson was born in Memphis, Tennessee and raised by her grandmother, Rhonda Bell Robinson. Robinson told her granddaughter their family’s history of slavery, her own difficulties being a sharecropper, and how Mississippi was the worst possible place for Black people. As a girl, Robinson promised her grandmother she would never go to Mississippi. She was living out her grandmother’s dream as the first person in her family to graduate from high school and go on to Spelman College. At school, she heard Dr. King speak, and soon became involved with SNCC to her family’s dismay.
When plans for the 1964 Freedom Summer were finalized, Robinson balanced her spring course load with her work in the print shop at SNCC Atlanta headquarters, preparing materials for the Freedom Schools and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She was both excited and terrified about spending the summer in the one state her grandmother had warned her against. She thought Freedom Summer would be a giant wake-up call for the country, but when she heard she was being assigned to Laurel because it was “too dangerous to send whites,” she didn’t think she would make it out alive.
In Laurel, Robinson organized twenty-three volunteers who built Freedom Schools and a library, conducted a literacy program and mock voter registration project, and rallied for integration of local restaurants and schools. In addition to running the project, Simmons also had to teach the white volunteers that they couldn’t let local families treat them better than their Black counterparts. She was arrested after a march in Jackson and was beaten and tortured for fifteen days in the fairgrounds, an open area where livestock were usually kept. Robinson then left Laurel and briefly worked with the Friends of SNCC in New York before heading to Atlanta.
In Atlanta in 1966, Robinson worked on Julian Bond’s campaign for reelection to the Georgia State Legislature after that body refused to seat him because of SNCC’s opposition to the Vietnam War. It was there she met her future husband Michael Simmons, who had previously worked for SNCC in Arkansas. She joined SNCC’s Atlanta Project in Vine City, the poorest part of Atlanta, which was organized around issues of housing, education, and unemployment. More than any other SNCC project, the Atlanta Project brought the issue of race in SNCC to a head. Robinson helped write the project’s controversial position paper on Black Power. Atlanta Project members had come to the conclusion that white workers needed to leave SNCC; they considered SNCC a Black organization for Black people. “We would have to go there [in the SNCC offices] and often ask for resources and justify them to white members. And so, we’d say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is this a Black organization or what?’” The group was eventually expelled from SNCC over a financial disagreement.
Gwen Robinson, who became known as Zoharah Simmons, went on to work for the National Council of Negro Women and kept up the fight for civil rights in the decades that followed. She continued to believe in the viability of nonviolence as a means of activism: “It’s not the easy way, but it’s the only way to bring about deep social change that will last.”
Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, “From Little Memphis Girl to Mississippi Amazon,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 9-32.
Our Voices: Emergence of Black Power, featuring selections from the SNCC Critical Oral Histories Conference, July 2016, Duke University.
Interview with Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons by Joseph Mosnier, September 14, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, Library of Congress.
Vincent Harding, “Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons,” October 2000, Veterans of Hope Project.