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A life dedicated to human rights

Published: June 14 2010

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons

Assistant Professor of Religion
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Religion professor Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons was the first person in her family to attend college. She and her family ranked education above all.

But Simmons began attending Atlanta’s historically black Spelman College in 1962 just as the civil rights movement was heating up. It was the headquarters for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Captivated by the work of King and others, she went to Laurel, Miss., in 1964 with SNCC to register black voters for what was called “Freedom Summer.” She ended up staying for 16 months.

“While we volunteers had put our lives on the line, these people had put their jobs, their homes, their families and everything they owned on the line,” she said. “Because I feared for their lives and their property and the justice of our cause, I believed that I had no choice; I had to stay.”

After leaving Laurel, she continued civil rights activities elsewhere in the South reluctantly delaying her formal education in her commitment to social justice and women’s rights.

“Coming from poverty, I saw education—like most blacks of that time—as the only way out of poverty,” she said. “It was very hard to deter my dream or to give my life for freedom as Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner (civil rights workers who were killed) had done. I also feared for my life. It was a difficult decision to continue, and it never was easy.”

Simmons worked for SNCC until 1968 and continued her civil rights work with theNational Council of Negro Women.

Later, she was on the staff of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker peace and human rights organization, for 23 years. During this time, she finished her degree at Antioch College in Ohio. “I went back to school not thinking I would get into academia,” she said.

But inspired by Temple University religion professor John Raines, she soon was teaching and on her way to her doctorate in religion with a focus on Islam. She would eventually earn a Fulbright Scholar award and State Department scholarship that allowed her to spend two years living and doing research in the Middle East.

Simmons, an assistant professor, has been at UF since 2000 where she teaches courses in Islamic studies, women and religion and African-American religious traditions. Her primary academic focus is on Islamic law and its impact on contemporary Muslim women. She is an affiliated faculty member of both the African American and the women’s studies departments.

Her lifetime commitment and interest in civil rights and women’s issues resulted in her selection as one of four women to receive the Quiet Courage Award from the 2009 Rosa Parks Quiet Courage Committee of Gainesville.

Like Parks, Simmons has stuck to her principles of fairness and justice for women and all people.

Story credit
Ron Wayne — UF News Bureau