Stayed on Freedom
One Family’s Journey Through the Black Freedom Movement
Zoharah Robinson Simmons grew up in Memphis. She was raised by her grandmother, who told vivid stories of her own mother’s enslavement and kept her granddaughter focused on the importance of graduating from college. Zoharah – who was known as Gwendolyn as a girl – took the advice to heart and headed for Spelman College, but would end up following a somewhat different path than her grandmother had imagined, leaving their Baptist tradition for Sufi Islam and becoming an activist in the cause of human rights, where her work wove in and around the Black Freedom movement.
Her husband, Michael Simmons, was raised in Philadelphia, where his brothers were early followers of Malcolm X. He, too, would becaome a global human rights activist, after serving time in prison for refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. Both Michael and Zoharah would be leaders in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the height of the civil rights movement, and would work in international human rights for the American Friends Service Committee. Their interwoven stories offer a narrative of the Black freedom struggle’s evolution from slavery to Black Lives Matter.
Stayed on Freedom weaves the history of organizations from SNCC and AFSC to the Nation of Islam and the National Independent Black Political Party together with interviews with Zoharah, Michael, and their daughter, the film maker Aishah Shahidah Simmons.
The arc of this story stretches beyond the history of the civil rights movement, and reaches farther than any one organization or issue. Rather, the Black freedom struggle is a movement of movements – and Stayed on Freedom braids the personal and the collective into a story of the Black freedom movement’s longevity.