If you grew up in the United States, you’ve probably heard about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. There’s a good chance that in history class you also learned about the Black Power movement and Malcolm X, Huey Newton or Fred Hampton. But how much did you learn about the rank-and-file of famous organizations such as the Black Panther Party or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)? About the grassroots organizers and activists who made those movements possible?
Too often, history is reduced to simple clichés or a series of important leaders. Dan Berger, an author and professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell, wants to change that. In his new book, “Stayed On Freedom: The Long History of Black Power Through One Family’s Journey,” Berger chronicles the lives of two people — Zoharah Simmons and Michael Simmons — and their journey as lifelong activists and organizers for justice and liberation. The book sheds light on little-known aspects of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and gives an inside look at some of the movements that defined the decades. Touching upon topics and themes such as Black feminism, personal growth and commitment to the movement, “Stayed On Freedom” reveals a gripping narrative of the lives of modern-day revolutionaries.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Real Change: I found it so interesting the way you’re looking at history in this book, through the individual lens and through Zoharah and Michael. Could you tell me a little bit about that process of working with them to build this history and tell their narrative in a way that’s accurate and does justice to their life experiences?
Dan Berger: As I say in the book, Zoharah went back to school late in life and started as a professor at the University of Florida the same year I started there as a freshman. And hearing her stories about her time in the civil rights movement and the origins of Black Power within the civil rights movement were so inspiring to me as a young activist, both in thinking about organizing, but also, like, literally inspired me. I remember hearing her talk, and then going into the library to check out books about the civil rights movement and trying to just learn more about the organizations and histories that she was talking about. That helped me a great deal, but I was also really struck by the big gap between her experiences and what some of the historical literature was saying.
And that was more than 20 years ago now, and things have changed and gotten better. But even so, knowing her history and then meeting Michael a few years later and learning his history, I was just sort of struck by how their stories exceeded what a lot of histories and popular understandings of civil rights and Black Power cover. And so I really wanted to correct that.
I always imagine them as I am reading people’s stuff and hearing people say things like, “no one in the movement thought this” or “everyone in the movement did that” and just having people whose stories sort of show otherwise.
The other piece of it for me, as well, is just getting older and trying to imagine what a life on the left looks like, over the long haul. I really appreciate them as two people who keep experimenting and trying new things and have joined different organizations and have tried different campaigns and who keep growing their worldview. And I think that’s a really important story in its own right and also a really important aspect of Black Power that hasn’t gotten enough attention. People tend to narrow it to just the Black Panther Party, right? Just these particular moments that are really important but don’t capture the whole story.
We spent many years doing interviews and conversations and sort of trying to tell the story together. In addition to the many hours I spent with them, I also interviewed a lot of their friends and family members and people who worked with them in different facets of their life. They reviewed the book at various points to make sure it was true to their story and their experience. We’ll share any royalties evenly between us as well, which I think is important to mention too.
The point you made about Zoharah and Michael’s life experiences — in terms of what it teaches us about living within your principles throughout your life — could you talk a little bit more about that? For example, Michael at one point is in Hungary, supporting the Roma movement, showing solidarity and the expansiveness of what it means to live within your values, even as you become an elder or a guide to younger generations.
I think that’s something that really inspired me about wanting to tell this story. When I started the book, I had a pretty clear sense of Pan-African solidarity or understanding Black Power and the transnational connections of that power within the Black diaspora. But I didn’t understand how Michael wound up living in Hungary for 20 years. Hungary and Central Europe was not a place that I had really thought of in the context of a Black radical tradition.
What I hope that the book shows is the lifetime of constant questioning and constant growth. The book talks about them getting politicized, getting deeper in the movement, but then also where they go after some of the organizations they’ve been a part of collapsed or they left for one reason or another. And I think that’s where that impulse of solidarity and self-determination becomes so important.
So one of the things that Michael says in the book about his time with the Roma is that the idea of Martin Luther King as this transcendent leader is a global image, not just one that we have in the United States. And so he would meet Roma who would say, “Oh, we need our Martin Luther King,” or “Where’s our Martin Luther King?” and Michael really was being so adamant that “they are all the Martin Luther King of the Roma movement,” that the process of liberation is as important as being liberated itself.
I think that kind of fusion of the journey and the goal is a really important movement lesson. And I think that’s part of what has enabled both of them to be strong mentors and teachers, as well as co-strugglers with these different movements.
I wanted to ask you about your thoughts about doing this form of popular history, maybe along the lines of Eric Hobsbawm or Gerald Horne. Why did you choose to tell it this way versus the traditional sort of “great man” history? Knowing that these two people weren’t recognized as leaders, even though they did do so much for the movement.
I’ve always objected to a sort of “great man” version of history. I think Zoharah and Michael are two people, of many, who show that leadership is a multifaceted process, right? When we narrow leadership to this idea of who’s giving the famous speeches or who’s the president or chairperson or executive secretary, etc. of an organization, we miss some of the corruption of that leadership, but we also miss the other ways that people display leadership.
Most social change is made by people that we’ve never heard of, and I think it’s really important to tell those stories, because I think it gives us a more accurate view of history. And it gives us a more accurate view of our present. When we spend a lot of time pining for a great man to come save us, a great man to come lead us, we’ve already lost. So I think these kinds of stories of foot soldiers or grassroots people, I mean that’s it, that’s history. That’s the world.
Why do you think there is this tendency to collapse into “great man” history and narrativization?
I think it’s a couple of things. Logistically, I think, the “great man” figures tend to be more self-conscious about leaving archival traces. So logistically, for some historians or other reporters, it’s easier to go to the presidential archive and study the president. But I think politically on a broader level, the pull of both capitalist individualism and of patriarchy conditions us to look to these great figures, and particularly great male figures. The foundation of feminist studies, and I would argue Black studies, is contrary to that, pushing us to not settle for those kinds of stories and to read against the grain of archives.
I’ll give one example from researching the book that really spoke to me. There’s a section of the book that talks about Michael’s incarceration for refusing induction into the U.S. military during the war in Vietnam, and he was incarcerated for two and a half years, and at some point he got involved in a lot of organizing and strikes inside of prison. And there was a big strike that started after another draft resistor stole some hard-boiled eggs from the kitchen of the prison.
Reading some contemporary news articles from when this incident happened in 1971, after that person stole the eggs, the guards cracked down, and people got transferred. One of the people impacted was the son of a prominent family in Boston, and so the Boston Globe had the story about it. Rick Boardman was his name. And it said something about Boardman and 12 others, shipped out of prison or something along those lines in the article. And I was like, well I’m writing a book about one of those 12 others.
Just thinking about how easy it is for observers — journalists, commentators, historians, anyone — to just erase people, even in naming them, right? So much history lies in the 12 others, so much history lies in the sweeping anonymity that commentators ascribed to people. I was just really struck by that, because when I found that article, I’ve been researching this book for a long time, was in the middle of writing it, and just seeing Michael, whose twists and turns of his story I knew so intimately, be cast aside as an other really stood out to me. Really makes me hypersensitive to seeing that in my own writing, or seeing that in other people’s stories as well.
Were there any particular moments that were your favorite to document or write about in this book?
Yeah, hard to choose. But I mean, a few things that I’ll say. One was Zoharah’s leadership in Freedom Summer when she became a project director of the project in a town called Laurel, Mississippi. She was not supposed to be the project director; she had to become one when the person who had that job got run out of the state.
And I think it’s just such a profound coming into leadership moment, of someone really meeting the historical moment that they were in with a lot of fear and trepidation along the way. I think being able to chronicle the intensity of Freedom Summer — just the constant violence from white supremacists that Black organizers and their white allies who would come to Mississippi had to contend with — but also how she became, at 21, the leader of a project in a town most people have never heard of that doesn’t get a lot of attention otherwise in the Mississippi Freedom Summer story and just how much grit and determination and heroism can be seen. I think [it] was really profound for me.
There’s a lot in the book about the Atlanta Project of SNCC, which is really where this idea of Black Power became first vocalized within SNCC. That’s a dimension of SNCC’s history that has been sort of tarnished and criticized in almost every single book about SNCC and the civil rights movement. Getting to tell a different story of the Atlanta Project feels like a great honor. So that’s a moment from the first part of the book and the middle part of the book.
From the last part of the book, it’s hard to pick just one example. But I’ll say, the braided stories of Michael’s time in a communist organization and Zoharah’s time in a Black nationalist organization in the late ’70s and early 1980s, and how they were both trying similar strategies from different frameworks, was really revealing to me.
People will often tend to think, “Well if we just did this one thing, everything will work out,” and here we have people, both trying this one thing, from different vantage points where they’re both trying to build these political parties, and it didn’t work out.
To me, it said something about the time period, that there are certain things that are not possible in different time periods. I think the early ’80s was a hard time period for everybody, some of the changes to the political economy were just getting so much worse — poverty expanding and that new virulent form of racism expanding — that I think just took a toll on people, personally, politically, psychically. That’s a harder part of the story, but I think that’s a really important one though.
Yeah, that’s really real. I think a lot about the different debates around like, does this moment have revolutionary potential. Among the left, that’s often a very big question: reform versus revolution, whether it’s tactical or philosophical.
What I hope this story shows is that, in some ways, every moment has revolutionary potential but that doesn’t mean that every moment is on the precipice of revolution. To me, part of why I wanted to tell the story over a six-decade period is to follow people as they go through moments where they feel like revolution is on the immediate horizon, and then have to figure out how to keep going, when they realize that it’s not.
I think that’s a very important lesson about what it means to have a life on the left that we are going to live through these moments where history seems to be sweeping us along in very exciting ways and through these moments where history seems to be bearing down on us in oppressive ways. And I think that we have to be able to adapt to both of those, to intervene in both of those.
“Stayed on Freedom: The Long History of Black Power through One Family’s Journey” by Dan Berger was published by Basic Books on Jan. 24 and is available online and in some bookstores.
Berger will be doing a book launch event at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave.) on Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Read more of the Jan. 25-31, 2023 issue.