This essay appears in our print issue, On Solidarity.
“Freedom is a love story,” writes Dan Berger in the introduction of his new book Stayed on Freedom: The Long History of Black Power through One Family’s Journey. “It is cacophonous and seamless, beautiful and tedious.” Few authors illustrate that quite like Berger, who tells the little-known stories of Michael and Zoharah Simmons, activists whose decades of patient, dedicated organizing work—both locally and internationally—would help give lasting shape to the Black Power movement.
Berger follows Michael and Zoharah from their early married days in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to their separate, later efforts to dismantle apartheid in the ’80s and ’90s. We watch as they and their comrades grow dissatisfied with the distance between SNCC’s national leadership and the grassroots in the mid-1960s and decide to draft “the Black Consciousness Paper,” an essay whose ideas will form the basis of what will eventually be known as Black Power politics. Michael and Zoharah traverse the globe, seeking various political homes—be it SNCC, the Quaker American Friends Service Committee, or the internationalist Third World Coalition—in which to nurture radical Black thought and power.
Stayed on Freedom is at times a complex portrait of a family and at others a history of a political movement. Indeed, it is often both at once, as each of the two makes significant personal sacrifices in service of their political mission. One memorable chapter details the then-couple’s life in 1969: Zoharah gives birth to their first child, Aisha and, months later, Michael is arrested and imprisoned for his role in a Vietnam War draft protest. The Black freedom struggle, Berger’s work reminds us, is precisely that: a challenging, risky, often dangerous process in which failure—failure to achieve a given material end, perhaps, or the breaking up of an organization over internal strategic disputes—sometimes occurs. Yet Zoharah and Michael’s Black Power politics refused to turn away from the messy, everyday work of organizing: the common view of Black Power as a retreat from political changemaking, the book emphatically reminds us, is a flawed one. Instead, the radical promise of the movement comes in what Berger calls its “intimate project of solidarity”: an unashamed centering of Black pride while never forgetting the need to reach outwards and build broad coalitions united around shared goals.
In May, nia t. evans sat down with Michael and Zoharah, along with Dan Berger, to discuss the book and the two activists’ ongoing work.
nia t. evans: I want to start at the beginning. Michael and Zoharah, you both came to this work, in part, through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). How were you both introduced to the process of building political solidarity? What were your earliest lessons?
Michael Simmons: Like most of my generational peers, I was ignorant about what to do. I was mad about what was going on, but I really didn’t have things to educate me. My best notion of social change was through protests and demonstrations. But I never really thought about how you actually get people to protest. Growing up, there were only forays into what I consider the margins of the movement. In high school, I protested the treatment of Black workers with the Philadelphia NAACP, led by Cecil B. Moore. A couple years later, I, along with some other students at Temple University, organized a protest in demonstration in solidarity with what was happening in Selma. But it wasn’t until I worked with SNCC and began to see the nitty-gritty, day-to-day work of organizing and talking to people that I understood the antecedents to the protests I had been watching. SNCC helped me understand the relationship that is necessary between organizers and the people they claim to be fighting with.
Zoharah Simmons: I grew up living under Jim Crow apartheid in Memphis, Tennessee and thinking back on it, I experienced Black people forming solidarity in organizations. By that, I mean churches, the Masonic and Eastern Star groups, the Knights of Labor groups. These were a part of my childhood. I didn’t even think of them as spaces of solidarity until this very moment, but of course Black people had to band together and form these kinds of organizations to survive.
We grew up in situations where your life could be on the line at any point, so you had to build solidarity across race and class lines. I think about my second-grade teacher who was one of the first Black people to run for elected office in Memphis. Memphis was not like Mississippi: Black people could register to vote, but they rarely ran for office. So when she ran for office, the community came together to support her. They guarded her house, armed, twenty-four seven, because people threatened her life. She didn’t win, but they kept her alive.
nte: Dan, you’ve studied Black liberation movements for decades. What have you learned about the nature of political solidarity?
Dan Berger: To me, solidarity is the benchmark or the standard of left politics. Back in 2005, I wrote a book about the Weather Underground that was born out of the global justice movement of the early 2000s, when there was such a passion for the idea of allies and allyship. That’s part of what led me to want to write a book about the history of white antiracism. I came out of that book hating the framework of allyship. Allyship, as it was discussed in the early 2000s, presumed support for someone else’s struggle. But I was most impressed with the extent to which the Weather Underground tried, albeit unevenly, to make anti-imperialism its own fight. And that’s how I came to understand solidarity: that we have shared stakes in struggle. To be an “ally” in someone else’s struggle is to suggest that our lives are unchanged by what happens in that struggle—that it doesn’t matter if things change or stay the same. But I want to end patriarchy because it degrades my life and because I will be freer and better without it, as well as because it degrades the lives of women and nonbinary people. Solidarity is a much more meaningful and helpful rubric for understanding the work of social change.
We’re not just allied with somebody else. We are engaged in a project of solidarity because we want the world to change. Michael put this perfectly at an event we recently did. He said, “I’m not an ally of anybody else. I am a participant in the struggle,” and I think that sense of being coparticipants is key. Black power is an intimate project of solidarity, and that solidarity is not a rhetorical move, but something that needs to be expressed and practiced. Opening yourself up to struggling alongside others, placing your life in other people’s hands as they have placed theirs in yours, is an incredible act of intimacy.
nte: There’s a fantastic discussion about solidarity in the book in relation to Michael’s anti-apartheid work within the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker social justice organization that was amenable to his Black Power principles. Dan, you write that Michael hoped to make “solidarity more than pacifism the driving principle” for the group. Michael, can you talk about what that looked like in practice and Dan, how you came to describe it that way in your book?
MS: The AFSC was nonviolent in an absolute sense. Yet when we look at our lives, regardless of what our positions are, violence is everywhere. In the context of the freedom movement in Southern Africa, people tended to support the African National Congress (ANC), which had explicitly turned away from its former policy of nonviolent resistance. But even though the American Friends Committee was, as far as I was concerned, ecumenical regarding the resistance forces in South Africa, the one thing that concerned everyone was the armed struggle, even though there were a range of tactics at play: the educational programs within the movement against apartheid in South Africa, the medical programs, the programs for women. I challenged my colleagues in the AFSC to look at all the range of nonviolent activity that was going on in the South Africa resistance and said that we needed to at least support those efforts.
But a lot of the conversations there were disingenuous. People found excuses for apartheid. The most notable was led by the Philadelphia minister (and General Motors board member) Leon Sullivan, who developed an alleged code of conduct for corporations doing business in South Africa that had no enforcement mechanism. There was virtually no monitoring of it. It amounted to a way for U.S. corporations to avoid being challenged on their financial support for apartheid. Against this dominant line, I convinced the AFSC to economically divest from South Africa and built a new project, Southern Africa Summer, to train a cohort of high school and college students in divestment organizing and anti-imperialist work.
I would say, within any given situation, regardless of what your political philosophy may be, 90 percent of the time, there’s room for solidarity. We should not be looking for unanimous agreement on every single issue but trying to find the most salient ones and move from there.
DB: It makes me think of that Bernice Johnson Reagon idea that if you’re in coalition, and you’re comfortable, then you’re not in coalition. There should always been some sort of generative tension if you are moving toward something. Michael’s work in Southern Africa was so revelatory, in part, because it was about Southern Africa and not just South Africa. The mainstream narrative of the anti-apartheid movement was that it was focused on South Africa. But many adopted a regional approach, which engaged a much more expansive notion of solidarity and an anti-imperialist position.
A lot of people involved in those struggles were trying to name structural violence but didn’t have the language. The very condition of apartheid was violent, and there was no way to be nonviolent in response. But I’m curious to hear Zoharah’s perspective because the same issues that were happening in the AFSC and the broader 1970s peace movement in Southern African happened around Palestine twenty years later and are still happening in Palestine today. The convenience of asserting a sort of pacifist philosophy to avoid dealing with the primary violence of apartheid is one that has not gone away.
ZS: I first became involved in anti-occupation work because the AFSC had a vibrant Middle East program. And having been peripherally involved in the struggle against apartheid enabled me to see that those of us living in the U.S. could not tell people living under the boot of apartheid how best to respond to it. To be in solidarity meant doing whatever we could to make sure our government, which clearly had a big hand in keeping the occupation going, changed its role and stopped supporting oppressive regimes.
DB: There’s an AFSC article that came out in the early 1970s called “Nonviolence Not First for Export” by James Bristol. It calls to task this very dynamic we’re describing: the idea that people in the West demand other struggles to be nonviolent as the precondition of their support. He argues that that’s a misreading of nonviolence itself. That nonviolence has to begin from within. It’s not first for export. And so, if you are a citizen of an imperial power, it’s not for you to judge or demand a certain kind of tactical or philosophical allegiance from the people who are suffering under that empire.
nte: Can we talk a bit about the coalitional politics behind the development of the Black Power movement? The Atlanta Project, the SNCC committee that publicly opposed the Vietnam War and developed Black Power principles, feels like a perfect example of the generative tensions we’ve been discussing. Michael and Zoharah, how did you come to be a part of the Atlanta Project?
ZS: At a young age, I understood that Black people were organizing to throw off the oppression they were living under. I grew up sitting in the back of the bus. It was Negroes on one side and whites on the other. And I had to give up my seat if they wanted it. The Atlanta Project simply named what we were always fighting for: Black power. We wanted it but we weren’t usually saying it. Some people were. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which built a new political process within an apartheid system, is a great example. That was about power. And it was mainly Black people.
During Mississippi Freedom Summer when SNCC, CORE and others joined forces to form the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), I led the project to register voters in Laurel, MS. At least twenty of us were white, and there was always this situation where the Black people from Laurel thought that the white people were in charge. I was the project director, but if Black people came to the office and there was one white person there, they went to the white person to ask for help. And it really bothered me. We were all putting our lives on the line; the local community was, too. When we started the Atlanta Project of SNCC after the Georgia legislature refused to let Julian Bond take his state congressional seat in 1966, we started talking about these things as a group. We recorded our experiences. The women in the group transcribed what we said, and then we’d read it and come back together again.
We realized we had some internal things we had to address that had been ingrained by years of slavery and Jim Crow and what we now call white supremacy. We had internalized it all. We saw ourselves as inferior. And in order to address it, we had to speak about it publicly to our white and Black comrades. One of the things we suggested was that whites needed to go into the white community to organize. That’s where the seat of racism and white supremacy lie, and we, as Black people, couldn’t change that without white comrades also being on board. But we also were clear that we had to address the issue of internalized racism. We had to get rid of it. We had to embrace the notion of being Black, of being people of African descent, and loving ourselves in the skins we were in.
MS: I don’t think that young Black people today really grasp how much we disrespected ourselves. Not just because of the lack of education or housing or jobs, but because of who we were. I can remember saying my prayers every night, and at the end of my prayer, I would say, dear God, please make my hair straight. And I did that for years. And I would put Vaseline in my hair. My brother and I would put stocking caps on it, and we’d look in the morning and see if there had been any progress. I had a friend whose mother used to pinch his nose in order to make it straight. People would try to bleach their skin. All these things kind of culminated within ourselves. I mean, nobody criticized Zoharah more than the African American community when she got an Afro in 1962. It was Black people who were freaked out by that. So Black power, from a cultural point of view, was a challenge to that. And suddenly, things changed. Almost overnight, we were wearing Afros and dashikis. We started thinking about Africa in a positive sense. All of that emanated, I would argue, from Black Power.
DB: The Atlanta Project is such a critical, overlooked, maligned story of how and where and who brought Black Power in and through the civil rights movement. The Project brought together all of the intimate scars of racism that Zoharah and Michael were just talking about in terms of self-hatred and self-disregard, but also a deep and abiding sense of internationalism.
It was a signature innovation within a long history of Black radicalism and internationalism. It brought to the moment in 1966 the reinvigorating the sense that the war in Vietnam passed through Mississippi. That white supremacy was the apartheid South, but also this sense of self-hatred that was promulgated within Black communities. And it’s a space where we can see both positive and failed examples of solidarity. When Michael and eleven other SNCC organizers were arrested after an antiwar demonstration, SNCC staff who were mad at the Atlanta Project for their articulation of Black Power still showed up at the jail and visited their comrades. There was a real strong sense of, “Well, we might be disagreeing politically, strategically, or really just personally, but we will still show up for you.” And we see failed examples that culminated in Zoharah and Michael both being fired from SNCC after ongoing disputes between the national office and the Atlanta Project. There’s a lot in the Atlanta Project that people have overlooked and misinterpreted, but it was a place where internationalism was developed in a practical, urgent way. And we see in these two people’s lives how it has rippled across six decades of work grounded in international solidarity and exchange.
nte: On that point, Zoharah, can you talk a bit about intergenerational organizing, international solidarity, and how the two might fuel each other?
ZS: My work at AFSC really helped to expand what had begun in SNCC. And SNCC had been involved in supporting the Palestinian struggle. Those of us on the AFSC staff got to engage with people from the Middle East, from Palestine, from Southern Africa. It was an amazing opportunity to grow and unpack the connections between U.S. imperialism and what was happening domestically and globally. It laid the groundwork for my life going forward. After that, I spent two years living in Jordan working with women attempting to change their lives for the better.
When I came to teach at the University of Florida, I focused on human rights. I always used to wonder when my students were going to get as fired up as we were, as I had become when I was their age. And then, of course, the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 lit a fire under young people here. I’ve been lucky enough to mentor and work with young people through the National Council of Elders and the SNCC Legacy Project. We’re very focused on intergenerational dialogue. I just spent four days on Zoom with young people who were attending a National Council of Elders gathering. We discussed the issues of the day and what we elders have learned in our years of struggle. I see working with young organizers as critical to our forward momentum. We must internationalize our struggle and understand that we are battling imperialist forces within and beyond this country.
nte: Where are you all seeing exciting sites of struggle and solidarity? What excites you? What concerns you?
MS: The Black Lives Matter movement excites me. Right now, people are protesting the death of Jordan Neely by laying on subway tracks. A multiracial, multigenerational group of people—that’s a beautiful thing. We love to tell the stories of movements in short vignettes and often forget that they’re long processes. And movements are messy. They’re not a straight line. But people are trying new things, coming together.
But of course, what concerns me is Trumpism. These people cannot win democratically, so what they’re slowly trying to do is take away our right to vote, which, when you think about the arc of the civil rights movement, is where we started. I’m really concerned about that trend. It needs to stop.
ZS: I, too, was heartened to see people stopping the subway trains and to see the bravery of those people fighting for Jordan Neely. So that encourages me. What I want to see is some big-tent organizing that brings us together with some concrete goals. There are so many issues—everything from Cop City, the proposed police training facility in Atlanta that has sparked mass protests and resistance, to abortion rights, to housing inequality, to our healthcare system. In the civil rights era, we utilized coalitions. We had SNCC, the NAACP, and other groups form COFO. I want to see that kind of coalition building again. These are the questions I’m asking when I talk to my younger comrades. How do we have a big tent that fights the right-wing, neofascist forces we’re up against?
DB: I agree with my comrades here. There’s a lot that concerns me about this moment. We’re facing rising authoritarianism, nationalism, climate chaos, and a series of sort of patriarchal nightmares. And it’s all connected. Honestly, solidarity is the only way out of any of this. The same people behind Cop City are the people pushing anti-trans legislation and essentially bribing Supreme Court justices. We’re up against the same forces operating in all these different domains. But there are also all these moments of exciting pushback with people like Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, whose protests against their expulsions from the Tennessee House of Representatives led one article to label them the “New Faces of Black Power Politics.” People are starting to recognize this is all a part of the same struggle: not only are we facing the same enemies, but we’re broadly pursuing shared goals. I always come back to the slogan of “one no and many yeses.” It’s still a good orienting point for this moment.
ZS: I love that. One no and many yeses.