Raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
As a young boy, Michael Simmons heard many stories about the oppressive relations between white and Black people from his southern parents, but they made no impression. However, in 1955, when Simmons was ten years old, the murder of Emmett Till shocked him into consciousness, showing him just how dangerous life was for African Americans regardless of where they lived.
Like many in SNCC, the murder stayed with him, and in Spring 1965, Simmons along with a few other students organized a march of nearly three thousand students in Philadelphia to protest the beatings of people of color. Later, while on spring break, Simmons and Dwight Williams went to visit SNCC’s Atlanta office. During the visit, Simmons met Jimmy Travis, a Mississippi SNCC organizer who was shot in the head in 1963 during an assassination attempt on Bob Moses. Although Simmons and Williams had planned to go to Mississippi, Jimmy encouraged them to change their plans and head to Arkansas instead. By summer of the same year, Simmons left school to join SNCC full-time.
In Arkansas, Simmons worked on voter registration drives and conducted voter education classes. He also had a few brushes with the local law enforcement. In Forrest City, over 300 people were arrested over school integration efforts. The police were looking for two particular SNCC organizers who they incorrectly identified as leaders of the protest. One night, Simmons along with several others in SNCC’s Freedom House were attacked and beaten when roughly 25 officers broke in. Simmons recalled, “it was a baptism for me in U.S. democratic duplicity.”
Aside from his work in Arkansas, Simmons’ most significant SNCC experience came from his participation in the Atlanta Project. In fall 1965 he and his old friend Dwight Williams had been recruited by Gwendolyn (Zoharah) Robinson, a former Spelman College student who he would later marry, to support the electoral efforts of Julian Bond. Bond had won an earlier election to the Georgia State Legislature but had been denied seating because of SNCC’s opposition to the Vietnam war.
The project was SNCC’s first attempt at urban organizing. Over the course of its operation, the Atlanta Project created a position paper on raising the necessity of Black Consciousness and Black Power. The project also campaigned against the war and against the draft. On August 16, 1966, Simmons along with Larry Fox and several others gathered at the Army Corps Induction Center for the Atlanta to protest the drafting of Black men to fight in the Vietnam War.
Young men like Simmons were vulnerable to the draft. And SNCC’s men sometimes found that the draft was used as a weapon to thwart their activism. Simmons received a draft notice by the federal government. And though he had no intention of honoring it, before he was able to refuse induction, he was arrested and jailed. Later, he was convicted for draft refusal and spent two years and six months in jail.
After working with SNCC, Simmons went on to work with many human rights advocacy groups. In the 1970s, he served as the National Director for Housing and Employment for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Later on, he became the Director of AFSC’s Southern Africa Program. During the much of the 1990s, Simmons’ work focused on Cold War issues, including organizing exchanges between scholars and journals from the Soviet Union and the U.S.
Jennifer Jensen Wallach and John A. Kirk, Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas (University of Arkansas Press, 2011), 107.
“A Black Man Fights the Draft,” Interview With Michael Simmons by the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, 2003.
Arkansas Project Report, Spring 1965, Civil Rights Movement Veterans, Tougaloo College.
Interview with Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons by Joseph Mosnier, September 14, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
SNCC Report on Draft Program, 1966, Civil Rights Movement Veterans, Tougaloo College.