Hard Memories, Future Hopes

Hard Memories, Future Hopes

KUAF panel discusses anti-racism in the South


When KUAF presented its online panel discussion “The Movement That Never Was: Conversations on Anti-Racism in the South and Arkansas” on Oct. 22, the Zoom room was filled with luminaries that have an abundance of expertise in the subject area: journalist Paul Keifer, who is hosting the KUAF podcasts linked to the panel; Lisa Corrigan, professor of communications, director of the Gender Studies Program and affiliate faculty in both African and African-American Studies and Latin American Studies in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas and author of “Prison Power: How Prison Influenced the Movement for Black Liberation” and “Black Feelings: Race and Affect in the Long Sixties”; and Jay Childers, associate professor and chairman of Department of Communication Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Kansas and author of “The Evolving Citizen: American Youth and the Changing Norms of Democratic Engagement.”

One panelist, however, was an active participant in the Civil Rights Era, a primary topic of conversation for the panel. Michael Simmons was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and spent five months during 1965 in West Helena, Marvel, Marianna and Elaine, organizing, educating and registering voters. In a 2009 essay he wrote called “Arkansas Roots and Consciousness,” Simmons describes, in heartbreaking detail, his experience as a young Black man in a virulently racist environment: A city pool was drained and closed rather than permit Simmons and a group of young Black people entry. A white auto repair shop owner pulled a gun on Simmons when he sought repair work on a car, forcing him to flee, ducked down as low as he could go beneath the steering wheel and still see to drive — and Simmons was arrested on trumped-up disturbing the peace charges when he tried to file a police report about the incident. Law officers stormed a SNCC office and threw the young workers against the wall, hurling threats at them.

Michael Simmons

None of these events robbed Simmons of his heart, courage or determination. He took what he learned in his work with SNCC and turned it into a lifelong quest to help the oppressed.

“My entire life has been devoted to the struggle for human rights,” he says. In addition to fighting for civil rights, he’s served as an advocate for issues like the anti-war movement, the fair housing movement and the anti-apartheid movement, and was director of European Programs for the American Friends Service Committee. “Beginning in the Civil Rights movement, I have worked with oppressed people throughout the world on a range of issues. In that regard, I am always looking to engage oppressed people to get them to recognize that there is always something that can be done to improve their condition. I feel that it is very important to stress that the struggle for justice is difficult. While demonstrating and mobilization are essential, the essence of the work is organizing folks in a way that they can see that they have the power to make change.”

After spending his life fighting for the most vulnerable, Simmons says he has renewed optimism after witnessing the movement against police brutality that swept the country over the past six months.

“The protests that have occurred this summer give me much hope,” he says. “I am stunned at the duration, diversity and energy of the protest. However, at some point people must come up with a program for change. Fundamental change is a very difficult process, and it is important that people view the struggle as a marathon and not a sprint.”

The virtual event was moderated by KUAF News Director and “Ozarks at Large” creator and host Kyle Kellams.


University of Arkansas professor Lisa Corrigan was one of the panelists at KUAF’s Oct. 22 event. She answered three questions for The Free Weekly about the panel discussion.

She answered three questions for The Free Weekly about the panel discussion.
Q. This panel includes a “conversation on anti-racism.” Can you talk about the difference between saying “I’m not racist” and being anti-racist? What is the importance of the term in a moment like this?
A. “I’m not a racist” is a way that people try to frame their own actions and behaviors to avoid accountability for how they have participated in and benefited from racism (either casually or structurally). Anti-racism is a positive and active commitment to equality and justice that acknowledges how people (especially white people) need to be accountable for participating in structures that produce or reinforce racial inequality. This moment calls for anti-racist action as people intentionally commit to building their own cultural competence about oppressed racial groups and to participating in interracial coalition building in politics.
Q. Many of us have a very general, broad knowledge of the Civil Rights Era. When you participate in a panel like this, what types of subject matter/incidences/people/organizations do you anticipate or even hope to be able to drill down to in order to help educate us on the more specific issues of the Era? Is there anything you find the majority of the public to be ignorant of that is imperative for us to know in order to move forward on the issue of racial justice and anti-racism?
A. Knowledge of the Civil Rights Era mostly features clips of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. White people are particularly enamored with King’s comments about meritocracy when he says: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” They like this clip because they want to be color blind (“I don’t see race”) so they can avoid accountability for their lack of knowledge about the lives of Black people and other people of color and so that they can talk about their intentions rather than actions. But they know next to nothing about the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, plantation violence, Reconstruction, lynching, Jim Crow segregation, civil rights activism or Black Power activism. And that’s by design since the country’s school curriculum barely reports or reflects on the violence and brutality of anti-Black public policy. White people have feelings about racial justice and anti-racism but they don’t know a whole lot about America’s racial history, so they have a responsibility to fill those gaps to be credible about their intentions or actions.
Q. Why is important for organizations like KUAF to sponsor events like this panel?
A. Public radio has a mission to provide the American public with information even about difficult topics. Anti-Blackness is a central part of America’s history, so I appreciate KUAF’s commitment to offering long-form journalism that offers nuance and multiple perspectives on how Anti-Blackness has shaped and continues to shape life in the United States.

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