Date: June 28, 2021
Key Topics: building grassroots infrastructure; leadership development and organizing; race & the electoral arena; organizing is spadework
In March 1964, the legendary singer Nina Simone first performed her civil rights protest anthem “Mississippi Goddamn.” The song made clear that, however vicious and racist the rest of the American South was at the time, there was no place worse than Mississippi.
A young Spelman College student named Gwen Robinson was also well aware of that reality, recalling many warnings from her beloved grandmother never to step foot in that state. But against her family’s wishes, Robinson courageously made the decision that Spring to travel to Mississippi and join hundreds of others taking part in the historic Freedom Summer campaign.
Now known as Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, she recalled how excited she was to work as a Freedom School teacher for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). But after she was assigned to Laurel, Mississippi, a Klan-stronghold deemed too dangerous to send white volunteers, Dr. Simmons soon realized she would be taking on much greater responsibilities. One of the few women who served as a local project director, her first task was to find local people who could provide support and legitimacy. The very first door she knocked was answered by Mrs. Euberta Sphinks.
“Are you one of them Freedom Riders?” asked Mrs. Sphinks.
“Well come on in,” she said. “I’ve been waiting on you all my life.”
In so many ways, SNCC’s campaign that summer was an extension of the “spadework” that movement mentor Ella Baker suggested the young organization devote themselves. Unlike other civil rights organizations, SNCC committed to grassroots organizing as a way to build local power bases that would challenge the white supremacists who ran Mississippi and elsewhere. And in so many ways, the relationships like the ones established between SNCC workers like Dr. Simmons and local residents like Mrs. Sphinks, were central to that strategy.
Dr. Simmons and historian Charles Payne (author of the seminal I’ve Got the Light of Freedom) captivated us with many powerful stories and lessons during our final Freedom School session, reminding us how “folk found their best selves in the movement.” A real contribution to the telling of movement history, this was an awe-inspiring two hours and a perfect capstone to our series.