The Optimist View: Reflections on activism from Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons

“If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.” – Amanda Gorman

BY: AMELIA BUCKLEY

As we celebrated the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week, many Americans contemplated the profound impact of his legacy after a year of tumultuous civil movements across America. One community leader connecting the dots between racial justice movements of the past and present is Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, a social justice advocate, member of the National Council of Elders, and participant in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. 

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons Image source: University of Florida

In a recent On Being interview with Lucas Johnson, Dr. Simmons dives into the role of spirituality in activism and the value of community-level organizing to catalyze nation-wide change. Simmons stresses the importance of self-care and healing in any social justice movement. Raised a Christian and later converting to Islam with a Sufi slant, Simmons finds much of this healing is achieved through spiritual connection.

For members of our editorial team (Kristy and Amelia in this case), taking a break to listen to uplifting and engaging content, like On Being, is a way for us to productively recharge our activism batteries. We found this episode particularly poignant and were inspired to share it with you. 

This internal focus allows us to not only find inner peace in the midst of outer struggle, but also allows us to identify our role within a larger movement and contribute to the bigger goal in the most productive way possible. “We’re trying to change the world,” Simmons says, “But we have to change ourselves because we are a microcosm of the macrocosm.” Everything starts from within.

Developing a strong sense of self allows us to maintain our own center in the midst of a larger movement.  This is an essential skill, and does not take away from one’s personal passion about a cause, but rather helps to avoid the burnout that inevitably comes when we intermingle the foundation of our lives with a cause or goal. Changing the world takes a long time.

Not to say one shouldn’t put their whole soul into something they care about, but it’s important to take time to step away from the goal and make time for personal healing. On a day to day basis this could look like meditating, journaling, and taking time for fulfilling hobbies. On a broader level, this looks like establishing a strong sense of self, independent of the movement, and nourishing parts of yourself for the sake of individual wellness, not just societal progress. 

In addition to saving you from burnout, these personal wellness habits make you a more valuable member of a team and provide you with the skills and stamina to approach any challenge with ingenuity and determination.  Perhaps a focus on staying true to one’s own self might also be a way to protect against getting swept up in any one moment that betrays your core beliefs. 

Spirituality, activism and continuity

Once you have steadied your sense of self, Simmons calls our attention to the role of community, which for many is first found in a spiritual fellowship. Living in Mississippi, Simmons was sheltered and cared for by Ms. Spinks, a woman who welcomed Freedom Fighters to her home at great personal risk. She also introduced Simmons to the role of church in any movement as not necessarily a source of religious awakening, but rather as the lifeblood of a community. A place for acceptance, gathering, and love. 

Amanda Gorman

This connection between spirituality, community, and advocacy are echoed in modern social justice movements. On Friday we wrote about Amanda Gorman, the youngest ever inaugural poet. Gorman’s stirring recitation was full of spirit and wisdom beyond her years, showing her to be an heir to Dr. King’s message of righteous progress.  Her voice rang on the steps of the Capitol: “We the successors of a country and a time, Where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one.” 

Gorman is not just performing for any inauguration, but also the first time a woman and a person of color was sworn in as vice president.  The arc of equality is bending.

Foundations of community

“It was a community that produced Martin Luther King Jr,” Simmons says. While she holds Dr. King in great regard, she also calls our attention to the foundations of the community that gave way to this inspirational leader. The same community of Georgia which most recently yielded Reverend Raphael Warnock, the state’s first Black senator. 

Simmons credits love as what made Martin Luther King Jr. so great. And not only MLK. Vincent Harding, James Forman, Stokeley Carmichael, Malcolm X, she says that at their root, what made them so great was their ultimate love for their community and the people around them. 

Mississippi Freedom Summer activists. Image source: NPR

We see this foundation of love reflected in our most admired modern activists. In the way that despite all the adversity this country has thrown at them, inspirational voices like Kamala Harris, Amanda Gorman, Stacey Abrams, and so many more still speak of the US with hope and pride. 

As with any inauguration, this week marked a new beginning in the United States, but for many this one felt particularly catalyzing. Whether due to the fact that this administration’s cabinet is the most diverse in US history, or because we as a nation are facing some of our most trying days to date, it was a chance to reflect,  celebrating the promise of tomorrow while remembering those we’ve lost.    

Allow me to highlight one more line from Gorman’s poem that underscores the power and potential of this present moment: “For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us. This is the era of just redemption.”

I doubt Dr. King could have said it better. 

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We encourage you to listen to the full interview, called Living the Questions: A Civil Rights Elder on Exhaustion and Rest, Spiritual Practice, and the Necessity of Loving Community, here. During these challenging times, Simmons’ words remind us of the power of caring, how action matters, and offer inspiration to participate deeply in building community. 

Image sources: Fine Print Magazine, On Being

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