Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons is a profoundly spirit-filled woman, an activist, an organizer, and a scholar who has lived her life searching for the most meaningful ways to be human in the world. How to do justice, how to cultivate peace, how to resist and transform diminishment and inequity — these are the kinds of issues with which she has been grappling for many many years. And always, in the midst of that grappling, she has marveled at the depth and richness of God — seeking it constantly, consistently. Seeking it in the night skies from the back porch of her grandparents’ Memphis home when she was eight or nine years old. Seeking it in the raging thunder and sheeting rain of a Tennessee summer afternoon, when none of the downtown white faces, watching her from behind dry windows, offered her a refuge. Seeking it in the liberatory history she learned from white radical teachers at Spelman College. Seeking it in her grandmother’s wisdom and fears and tall, tall hopes. Seeking it in Hattiesburg and Laurel, Mississippi, in Freedom Schools and voting drives. In Atlanta, Georgia and in the Nation of Islam. In deepening answers to deepening problems. In decades of organizing for political and economic rights in the African American community. And in the compassionate example of her teacher — Bawa Muhaiyadeen — a slight, brown man who spoke Tamil and was presumed Sri Lankan — though no one knew for sure.
Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, or Zoharah, as she is known to friends, was one of Bawa’s first American students. Her daughter, Aishah, now a gifted and persevering filmmaker, was then a baby — the first person Bawa greeted when he got off the plane in Philadelphia in 1971. Zoharah’s relationship with her teacher has grown in the intervening years such that now, her life and work is saturated with the wisdom and insights of the Sufi sheik. Still, that wisdom and those insights had important counterparts in the lessons of Zoharah’s youth — lessons learned in church, in school, in the embrace of her family and community as well as in the best hopes and commitments of the southern freedom movement in which she participated as a teen and young adult.
We have known Zoharah a long time. She was a regular visitor to Mennonite House, the retreat, meeting and voluntary service center for movement activists which we founded and directed in the early 1960s in Atlanta. We met each other again in Philadelphia in the mid 1970s when Zoharah was working for the American Friends Service Committee. In those days, she was also organizing the National Black Independent Party. She served as treasurer of that important political project for the first three years of its existence. Most recently, Zoharah has been teaching in the religious studies department at the University of Florida at Gainesville and completing a doctoral program in the department of religion at Temple University. True to the brilliant combination of spiritual, political and social concerns which have been at the heart of her life for so many years, Zoharah’s dissertation is focussed around the position of women in Islamic Sharia Law — always looking for the deepest possibilities for gender equality within Islamic tradition; expanding and challenging the places where patriarchy has enforced unnecessary limitations. In all of our encounters with Zoharah, we have been most impressed by a certain joy in her countenance, a wondrous and wonderful spirit that deftly combines openness and discernment. Perhaps because she has had such a range of experiences in her own life, Zoharah is a quick study of the relative merits and possibilities of new situations. At the same time, her loving, inclusive disposition allows her to enter into new environments with the highest and best expectations.
One Thanksgiving, about fifteen years ago, Zoharah and her daughter Aishah were guests at our home with the Muslim scholar Hasan Askari and two friends from South Africa, Pat and Rajan Naidoo. It was a cool evening and the small dining room of our house on the Swarthmore College campus was warm and lively with candles, lamplight and good conversation. To accompany our turkey, cornbread, stuffing, fresh cranberry sauce, candied yams and sweet potato pie, Zoharah bought a magnificent pot of collard greens that Vincent remembers very well to this day. As the evening wore on, Zoharah and Hasan began to talk about themselves, their lives, the faith they shared and the exquisite mysticism and peace at the heart of Islamic tradition. Sitting around the table and listening to their stories in the soft radiance of the room, we were all especially moved by Zoharah’s gentle conviction of the many expressions of the divine in our very human lives.
As we think now of all that she has meant to us, to the movement and to the many people who have been touched by her vision, her struggling and her joy, we are thankful for our sister. Alhamdulillâh — all praise is to and of God.
Vincent Harding and Rosemarie Freeney Harding
Co-chairpersons, The Veterans of Hope Project
Growing up in Memphis
I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, and my parents divorced when I was about three-and-a-half years of age. I was raised by my grandparents with my mother close by. I spent weekends with her and vacation time. But clearly, it was my grandmother who had the most influence on my life in my growing up years. She was very, very religious. I was brought up in the Baptist church, the Gospel Temple Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee.
Growing up in the Jim Crow south, in Memphis, racist Memphis, the church was really the place, the church and the school, where we black people exercised agency. Early on I remember learning all the things that later would deepen and become the tools for being able to serve my people in the movement. This was a place where I was loved and everyone knew me and I knew everybody and so the harshness of being black in the deep south [was lessened]. We were protected in these places, both the church and the black school.
Just to add, again, the church as well as the school; because this was also for me a wonderful place–school. I loved it. You wanted to get there at the end of the summer. You were very happy that school was starting again. I remember Mrs. Turner who would meet us an hour before school to work on math problems or the teachers who stayed afterward to help us with different things. [I remember] all of the cultural events and how the teachers thought nothing of staying two or three hours to help us put our cultural events on. It was so incredible. I think it is so important for our young people coming on to know that school can be a wonderful place and should be. Certainly, in the church, in the school, and in my home I was taught to think that you are somebody. You are a person of worth. You have a bright future. You are going places. I believed this.
Vincent Harding: While you were in high school, you got involved in reading the Bible through. Why were you doing that?
Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons: The Bible was so important. In my home, my grandfather read the Bible every night extensively and sometimes he would have me read it to him. So there was always studying the Bible. It was a very, very important book. I had begun, as I remember, as early as maybe when I was twelve, to have questions and so I had read the Bible from beginning to end. I know once completely through and possibly twice by the time I had graduated.
Harding: What kind of questions were you starting to have?
Simmons: I certainly wanted to understand everything. This was one of the things that I can always remember about myself. I wanted to know why? So I had questions even as a younger child about why were we here? This I do remember very clearly, sitting out on the back stoop and looking up at the sky and wondering why we were all here. What was this all about?
Harding: This, meaning life itself.
Simmons: Yes, life itself. Why were we born and grow up and live–some a short time, some a long time–and then die and where did we go when we died? I can remember having a very strong feeling of not being from here. I can remember looking in the sky and wanting whoever had brought me to come and get me. This came back up, certainly, later when I got into mysticism. But I really remember that at eight and nine and ten.
I was quite protected, living with three adults [grandmother, grandfather and father] and being one child. The two men were working and one had a fairly decent job. I didn’t have to go out and work early. Many of my friends had to go to the cotton fields every summer, early on, from the time they were maybe in the ninth grade, some of them even in the eighth grade. I was protected from that and because we lived in the black community and we went to a black church and a black school, the only time I really came in contact with Jim Crow Memphis was when you went shopping in the downtown area where all the signs [were]. But we had black theaters and so there was an attempt to stay away from the hurt and all.
At the end of my junior year I knew I was planning to go to college and I knew I needed additional funds. I was counting on getting a scholarship from one of the schools that I had applied to but I also wanted my own funds so that was my first job-hunting process. I wanted to get a “good job,” quote/unquote, and that meant going out and seeing if I could get a job as a clerk or, perhaps, in a department store. I had talked this over with my grandmother, and interestingly, she said, “Okay. We’ll see.” I started looking in the paper for ads and I went out with the ads clipped and started inquiring about positions and the people looked at me incredulously. It was like, what are you doing here? I had my little piece of paper and I said, “I saw you had this ad.” They said, “This is not for colored.” Because you did have a [colored] section in the paper. I was cutting out sections that were not in the colored section. It was like, “Girl are you crazy? Can you read?”
I was turned down but I tried for a couple of weeks going out on these different ads. One day was my great awakening, the first awakening. I had been rebuffed again. It was hot, as hot as you can get in Memphis, and muggy. I was standing out on the street trying to think: should I go to another place–I had my little clippings and my list–or should I just forget it and go home? We have those torrential thunderstorms that come up in the deep south and one of these came up on me quite suddenly. Having grown up with an older person, I was always told when it was thundering and lightning, first of all, you certainly are not outdoors and you get in the house and you sit down and you are quiet, because, as my grandmother said, “the Lord is working.” You were not to be walking around or using instruments or anything. So there was a certain fear of lightning and being struck by lightning if you didn’t adhere to these guidelines. So, of course, when thunder and lightning began and here I was out in a section of the city that I really didn’t know, I was quite afraid. I looked around and there were buildings and occasionally a person standing in the window looking out.
It was the first time that I really felt deep, deep inside what it meant to be black in Memphis. I felt so afraid of the lightning but at the same time I felt that I didn’t know this place. I [felt] I might as well be in a foreign country and that these people looking out didn’t care. No one was saying, “Come inside out of the rain.” I had to just walk in the rain, thundering and lightning, to get to the place where I could get a bus that would take me back into the black side of town. During that walk in the rain with the thunder and the lightning it was the first time I remember being angry about white America and white Memphis and being black and what that meant. The more drenched I became, the more angry I became. As I stood there waiting for the bus I just was fuming. I thought, How dare they? Who do they think they are? So I got on the bus dripping wet and it was the 31 crosstown bus which still has that number and is still running that same route all these years. I got on and I sat on the front seat right as you get on, that long seat right on the end. It was the first time I’d ever done that.
Harding: Once you go to Spelman…why did you want to go to college? What was in your mind as you were thinking about college?
Simmons: College, to me, was going to mean the difference between being poor and living at 865 McComb Street where I was born and grew up. It meant that I would have a good job. I would have a nice home. I had bought into the sort of, the middle class dream. I wanted to be middle class and I wanted to have what we never had, a car and things like this. Let me just add also my grandmother who wanted–I gather from her stories that she told me… She grew up in Arkansas, and after sixth grade they didn’t have junior high or high school where she grew up [in] Earl, Arkansas. So in order to get any education above the sixth grade you had to go off to boarding school. All of my life she told me how she had yearned to go to boarding school. So my grandmother had fought for me to go. It was like, “If I have to pay it. I want her to go,” because I was living out her dream. So [with] the trunk and the packing and all, she was re-living what she wanted through me.
Sudarshan Kapur: When you get to Spelman, you encounter a whole lot of other teachers who also make a difference. Could you please say something about that? Who they were and in what way they influenced your life and your thinking?
Simmons: Dr. Staughton Lynd was the history professor and a woman named Esther Seaton. Ms. Esther Seaton was from New York. I totally lost track of her. She was the English teacher.
Harding: These are two of the white faculty people.
Simmons: Two white faculty people at Spelman. They had a tremendous influence on me. Staughton Lynd–and many of you saw him when he was being interviewed, I’m sure. And those of you who did will know without even my saying why he would have had such an influence on me. He was a radical person and very, I felt, spiritual, in a way that I had not known spirituality. A different kind of spirituality. And he was very committed to the articulation of the African-American story within the history of America. So I learned from him history like I never knew it and things I never knew. And at the same time [I was] reading documents and learning about writers that I had never heard of. They had the most influence. Another white professor was Howard Zinn who was the chair of the history department at that time. Those three professors, all white radicals, had a real impact on my life; moreso than anyone else at Spelman. It was the first time I had ever been taught by whites. It was quite an interesting experience.
I gradually became involved in the student movement while I was in my freshman year at Spelman and was selected by my colleagues to be one of the two representatives to sit on SNCC’s coordinating committee. In fact, SNCC stood for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and its governing body at that time was made up of student representatives from the traditional black colleges around the country. I was elected to that. Therefore, this brought me into direct contact with the planning that was going on for Mississippi Summer.
All my life I had been taught to fear Mississippi. Early on I did not have any idea that I, myself, would join the thousand-plus students who would go there that summer. I was very involved in the planning, doing a lot of the work–the typing, the mimeographing, the stapling, the getting the materials together for the orientation, etc., etc. Certainly, the more I became involved in that process, the desire to be a part of it was growing. Again, I was thrown into that terrible tension of, first of all, my own fear about the state.
One of the strategies for the Mississippi Freedom Summer was to recruit, by and large, white college-aged youth. The reason behind this was because black life was not valued at all in Mississippi. They had been killing black people and the federal government had not given a hoot–looked the other way. So the idea was, if we were able to take a large number of white, predominantly middle class, college people into the state that the federal government and, of course, the parents of these young people would force the federal government to take an interest in what was going on and to provide protection for them, thereby providing protection for the local people and the black organizers in the forefront of this effort.
One of the few things that I was trying to hold onto in terms of thinkingmaybe I will survive this [was] the fact that there were all these white young people going. That maybe the FBI would come and, if need be, the National Guard and maybe we would survive this. So when I was told I was being assigned to Laurel with two other people only and both of them black men and the three of us were going to Laurel because it was too dangerous for white people, I was like, “Well wait a minute. I thought that was the whole idea.” That did not feel good at all!
First of all, let me say that the way things had been organized was that in many places like Hattiesburg, Mississippi; like Meridian, Jackson, Greenwood, Greenville, Holly Springs, you had an organization already developed made up of the Mississippi people who had been involved already with the NAACP, with CORE, or even with the SNCC volunteers. Laurel was not like that. So we had no group ready to take us in, to give us housing or anything. We had to stay initially in Hattiesburg which was thirty miles to the south and where it was very well organized, with houses waiting to take us and everything. The three of us, after a day or so, were told, “Now you are going to have to drive up to Laurel and be as clandestine as possible and try to open up the city, the town — big town. Try to find people who might want to be involved in this and who will give you shelter.” Here, again, I thought–oh God, why has this got to be so hard. We went and we did have some names of people. One of them was Mrs. Susie Ruffin who had been very involved with the state NAACP and she gave us names of other people. One of the persons who became very, very, very important to the Laurel project and certainly to me, personally, was Mrs. Euberta Sphinks.
When I got to Mrs. Sphinks’s door, I knocked on her door. I introduced myself and told her that I was a COFO worker because that is how we identified ourselves. COFO was the Council of Federated Organizations, made up of the several organizations like CORE, SNCC, NAACP and SCLC that were underwriting or sponsoring this Mississippi Summer. She looked at me and said, “Girl, I’ve been waiting on you all my life. Come on in.” I was just amazed and basically, from that point things began happening very quickly. She called in her neighbor who lived directly across the street, Mrs. Carrie Clayton, who was a widowed lady, quite old at the time, and retired. They agreed after we met with them over a couple of days that they would take us in.
This, then, became our headquarters and our launching site from which we began our organizing work. One of the stories I’ve been amusingly telling is that it was such an interesting relationship with Mrs. Sphinks and really, all of the people with whom we lived as we expanded our contacts. While we were seen as “leaders”, people who brought a vision, people who brought resources, ideas, materials that they wanted, books and pamphlets and all of this, at the same time, because of our youth we were also children to them. So it was a very interesting dynamic. I had to obey Mrs. Sphinks when it came to what time I could come in and where I was going. I had to tell her where I was going or where I had been. If she said I had to go to church, I had to go. But at the same time, they were willing to follow me into the jaws of the jail.
Black Power and Atlanta
Toward the end of my time in SNCC, I was in the Atlanta Project of SNCC, which was one of the early urban efforts of SNCC where we ran into those very, very deep problems that we are grappling with now. We weren’t talking about getting people registered to vote. The restaurants [had been integrated], the colored signs on the water fountains had come down so we were up against the same thing we are up against now and that is poverty, alienation, bad education, bad housing. The very same problems.
This group of us in the Atlanta Project had begun with a tape recorder and the five or six of us sitting around it talking about our experiences in the movement, our experiences in this country and whether the movement for integration was what we needed at that stage. We were trying to forge a way to deal with these issues and the old ways that we had used in Mississippi and Alabama and rural Georgia were not working. Some of us, as well as our colleagues in Lowndes County, really came up with some of the theoretical underpinnings for Black Power. Most people don’t know that. If they know anything about it they remember that Stokely Carmichael was on a march and he said “Black Power” and the words caught on and the media ran with it. We know very little about how that evolved and what that was in response to.
Finding the Mystic Path
The moving into meditation happened in Atlanta after I had left Laurel and the Mississippi theater. This is when I became involved. There were two people who came from New York City to live and work as volunteers in the Atlanta Project of SNCC. Back then we called him Roland Snellings. He is now Askia Mohammed Touré, a fairly well-known poet, and his wife Aisha. I just pestered them because they were not into proselytizing at all. If anything, they were very secretive about their spiritual life because they assumed we would not accept them. They were always stealing away. And I’d say, “Well, what are you all spending so much time doing?” I just kept pestering them and then they said they meditated. I said, “Well, what’s that?” I didn’t know about it. Gradually, they really saw that I was serious about wanting to know what it was, because they had a certain serenity about them. As those people who are familiar with SNCC folks [know], we were sort of known as hell-raisers. After you had survived the week or what-have-you, the idea of unwinding was a good party. These people didn’t do that with us.
I certainly experienced [what were] for me, very unexplained sensations and feelings after they had begun to instruct me in the meditation process that they used. It then propelled me into all kinds of bookstores looking for books. One of the earliest books that I read was The Autobiography of a Yogiby Paramahansa Yogananda. I felt I had met him on the pages of that book. It made an incredible change in my desire to know more and to find these mystical, spiritual people.
Sufism and Islam
Many people see Sufism as the esoteric arm of Islam. Throughout the history of Islam there has been often a struggle between the mystical stream and the orthodox, very legalistic stream of Islam. The community that I am in is struggling within itself to try to contain the tension between those of us who are much more in the mystical stream and the others who are much more in, what would be called, the Sunni Islam stream.
I have to say that I did not embrace Islam immediately, by any means. And I didn’t see my engagement with Bawa leading in that direction for quite a long time. In fact, the messages that resonated most with me from him had to do with going beyond religions, the dogmas and the restrictions, and going into that open space where one communes directly with God. That was and continues to be what resonates with me. And of course, the things that stymied my embracing it had very much to do with the role of women and my view of how women were treated, particularly in the Arab world and in Islam. I was clear that there was no way I could embrace that. I certainly have found within the actual religion, particularly within the Koran–the holy book of the Muslims–many things that I do resonate with. I see it as I think many of the feminist theologians in Christianity as well as those feminists in Judaism see that because of the cultural heritage in which these religions arose, the patriarchal forms in those cultures got imprinted onto these religions. The men to whom these texts were revealed were products of their time and brought sexist ideas into these traditions. The bedrock, I believe now, of the Islamic tradition is not sexist but it clearly has been–what is it when you take silver and put gold on top of it, what do they call that process?–overlay. It is overlaid heavily with tremendous sexist ideas. While I approach it with fear and trembling, I think that some of us who say we are in the tradition have to challenge this.
Sally Belfrage. Freedom Summer. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1990
Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Random House, 1967
Vicki Crawford, Jacqueline Rouse and Barbara Woods. Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994
Len Holt. The Summer that Didn’t End. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1992
Doug McAdam. Freedom Summer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990
Charles Payne. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996
Belinda Robnett. How Long? How Long?: African American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997
Elizabeth Sutherland. Letters from Mississippi. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965
The Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship Homepage link
Lisa Zagumny, Historic African American Colleges: Education for Civil Rights Activists, in The Journal of Philosophy and History of Education, volume 49, 1999. This essay includes a brief discussion of Simmons’s college activism and the reaction of Spelman College. link