By Sarah Naron
CROCKETT – Grapeland native Dr. Ruth Simmons, Prairie View A&M University’s first female president, presented a speech at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Committee’s 40th annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Program held Sunday, Jan. 14 in the Crockett ISD Administration Building.
As Dr. Simmons explained, she was born in Grapeland and attended W.R. Banks High School for one year before her family relocated to Houston.
“I have to say, the years I spent in this area were absolutely formative for me,” said Dr. Simmons.
Dr. Simmons’s early days were spent on a farm, “surrounded by my family members and protected by my parents.
“That period taught me a lot about what to value and how to conduct myself in the world,” she said.
Dr. Simmons described her first experience in school as “enthralling,” a sensation that has not faded over the years which have passed. According to Dr. Simmons, she was first shown the importance of education by her first-grade teacher, Ida May Henderson, whom she described as “electrifying.
“Was she not something?” Dr. Simmons asked when many of the audience members began applauding at the mention of the educator’s name.
Grapeland is a place to which Dr. Simmons and her family still maintain close ties with, attending worship services at Greater New Hope Baptist Church and Cedar Branch Baptist Church whenever the opportunity arises.
Dr. Simmons recalled the picnics frequently held following Sunday services.
“When I was a little one, there was some woman who, every Sunday, brought chicken feet,” Dr. Simmons recalled. “And that is something that I looked forward to every Sunday when I went to church.
“I think one Sunday, I was acting up something terrible in church because I wanted those chicken feet,” she continued. “And I don’t know what Mama did, but she somehow managed to get me those chicken feet.”
According to Dr. Simmons, a room in the Grapeland Public Library was established by her family in honor of her mother, Fannie Campbell Stubblefield, “which offers resources for those seeking to do ancestry research.
“We are tied to this area and will be forever,” said Dr. Simmons. “It has been an area that has fed us physically and spiritually and continues to do that every day.”
As Dr. Simmons explained, she has been featured in several programs which aired on nation television in which Grapeland also made an appearance.
“They (the filmmakers) say, ‘How does it happen – that you come from this farm and you’re doing what you’re doing today?’” Dr. Simmons said. “And I say, ‘How does it not happen?’
“We have a tendency to minimize our spiritual life,” she pointed out. “But who we are, where we came from, who shaped us, who mentored us, who taught us how to be – what a privilege. What a privilege that was.”
Dr. Simmons recalled that during her childhood, stringent social rules were in place that colored residents of Grapeland were expected to follow.
“We couldn’t do certain kinds of things,” she remembered. “We had to step off the sidewalk when whites were approaching. Most places, we couldn’t go into at all.”
According to Dr. Simmons, socialization between African-Americans living in the city was carried out in a location nicknamed the Buzzard’s Roost.
“These are all things that are engraved in our minds,” she said. “But the wonderful thing to me is that however much people think they can limit you by doing those things, they can never limit your spirit.
“We must teach our children that their freedom comes from within,” Dr. Simmons continued. “It doesn’t come because somebody gives it to you. It comes because you own it yourself. You assert it yourself. You live it yourself. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Dr. Simmons shared that upon receiving the invitation to appear as the speaker for the commemorative ceremony, her response was one she rarely gives.
“I committed to it right away,” she divulged. “That I did so left the staff in my office aghast as they questioned me about whether I might have made a mistake or been too hasty in my decision.”
Dr. Simmons explained that she receives a large number of requests to present speeches, many of which she rejects.
“I have a job, and I have to do that first,” she pointed out.
While many invitations are declined, Dr. Simmons has been the featured speaker at a number of other events commemorating Dr. King.
As Dr. Simmons pointed out, such events are “prevalent” throughout America, many of them on very large scales.
“Cities often hold convention center scale events so that political figures and other high-profile individuals can do their once a year public acknowledgment of their commitment to equality and justice,” said Dr. Simmons. “What most intrigues me about these events is not their scale or participants, but the mere fact that they have endured and flourished for so long after the life and times of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The fact that we are still doing this all these years later tells us a good deal about the meaning and reach of his extraordinary life,” she said.
As Dr. Simmons pointed out, the tragedy surrounding the death of Dr. King, as well as the period of “upheaval and alienation that followed” remain fresh in the minds of those who were alive to witness it firsthand.
“Everybody remembers where they were when Martin Luther King was assassinated,” she said.
As Dr. Simmons explained, she was a student in France at the time and was attending a camp in Spain during a break from school.
A fellow attendant of the camp entered Dr. Simmons’s tent early one morning and informed her that Dr. King had been killed.
“Of course, I thought it was a joke,” Dr. Simmons recalled. “And I got up, and I said, ‘Get out. Leave me alone. Let me sleep.’”
The informant, however, remained in the tent, taking their time to convince Dr. Simmons that the civil rights leader had indeed, been assassinated. The two then quickly drove to the small, Northern Spain town neighboring the camp.
Dr. Simmons went on to recall the scene awaiting them when they arrived at the town’s main square.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “There, milling around the square, were Spaniards – a world away (from Dr. King), weeping. Such was the reach of this man.
“People in Spain; people in Africa; people all around the world were touched by this man who lived and breathed for us,” she said.
Dr. Simmons spoke of how Dr. King’s vision for the United States should still be heavily focused on in the present day.
“Today, can there be any doubt that we are mired in social ills and divisions that cry out for robust policies and actions that advance the central gains of our democracy – freedom, justice, equality?” Dr. Simmons asked.
“Shaping a path through the colored divisions in this country is an urgent task,” she continued. “We long for a compelling voice of reconciliation and a humane and healing expression of inclusiveness.”
According to Dr. Simmons, Dr. King was not only that voice during the period of time which he lived, but remains so today.
Dr. Simmons cited an article published in a 1957 edition of “Christian Century” in which Dr. King “warned us of the consequences of ‘physical violence and corroding hatred.’
“He said that if we succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle for justice, unborn generations will live in a desolate night of bitterness, and their chief legacy will be an endless reign of chaos,” Dr. Simmons explained.
In lieu of violence, Dr. Simmons said, the vision held by Dr. King required only love, “which he called agape love.
“He defined that as redeeming good will for all men,” Dr. Simmons explained. “He called for us to project the ethics of love to the very center of our lives.”
As Dr. Simmons pointed out, hatred is not only accompanied by violence of the physical variety, but other forms as well, such as “bigotry…exclusion…exploitation…benign indifference…hateful speech.
“Hatred, the very opposite of the love that King espoused, is formed in the crucible of pride and self-interest, a toxic mix causing individuals and groups to demean, exclude, exploit and violate the rights of others in order to secure privilege or dominance over them,” Dr. Simmons said.
Dr. Simmons provided examples of aspects which made Dr. King the influential historical figure that he is presently hailed as being.
“One was his beloved community,” she said. “His beloved community was the image of a community of cooperation and respect for everybody.”
Dr. Simmons pointed out that Dr. King “vigorously” rejected the idea that certain individuals held more privilege and entitlement than others.
“He gave his life to the idea that the least of us is deserving of love, respect and equality,” she pointed out. “The goal of establishing such a community remains, in my view, a worthy one.”
Dr. Simmons also spoke on the demands for economic, individual, social and racial privileges with which present-day America is “unabashedly replete.
“Social and economic inequality, many today assert, are the natural and preferred order of things,” Dr. Simmons pointed out. “Things really shouldn’t be equal; it’s not natural, because not everybody is deserving.
“These people may express scorn for those who would offer a more humane approach in the vein of King’s beloved community,” she continued. “They depict those people as unknowing and irrelevant; cowardly and envious.”
According to Dr. Simmons, the voices of those who call for “acceptance of inequality, poverty, brutish exclusion and racial domination are often amplified by the silent nods of some and the indifference of others.
“That silence is something,” Dr. Simmons said, drawing voiced agreement from several audience members. “It’s something.”
Dr. Simmons shared that she is often asked for advice by universities whose colored student population are experiencing feelings of alienation.
“I often explain to them, ‘They’re feeling alienated not because their peers are dismissive or hateful or are excluding them,” she said. “’They’re feeling that way because you are silent in the face of it.’”
Dr. Simmons explained that the first response to such behavior “must be not to give quarter.
“When children are watching, that’s what they’re watching for,” she pointed out. “They’re not just watching for the hate-filled rhetoric. They’re watching to see what others do to respond to it. Silence is not the answer.”
Dr. Simmons described Dr. King as a man who “lived his life out loud,” inviting those around him into the struggles and fears he faced.
“He was vilified in his time, let’s face it,” she said. “But he was also greatly extolled and celebrated.”
Dr. Simmons further painted a picture of Dr. King as an individual who never expressed scorn for others and was never hesitant to reveal his feelings of self-doubt.
“The brash certitude and arrogance of today was not for him,” she said. “Humility guided his steps, and respect for others illumined his way. His questioning and thoughtfulness did not diminish him. It elevated him even further as a leader.”
Dr. Simmons described herself as “privileged to work in a field where there are lots of know-it-alls,” drawing laughter from those listening.
“I often try to say to people, ‘You don’t have to project that,’” she said. “If you project weakness, sometimes, that’s much more effective than representing yourself as someone who is perfection itself.”
Dr. Simmons cited an essay written by Dr. King dealing with the topic of suffering and the threats made on his life as a model of “how to cope with the kind of virulent hatred” frequently seen today.
“That is one of the reasons that he is so present for us today – because he shared himself with us,” Dr. Simmons said.
As Dr. Simmons pointed out, many individuals today fear that America is moving backward as a nation, citing frequent references made to “the good old days” as support for this belief.
“By the way, the good old days were good for some, but not for others,” she pointed out. “The systematic minimizing and embellishment of past brutalities, the stoking of resentments and the highlighting of divisions – these are all indications of a move backward and away from the values and ethics central to Martin Luther King’s teaching.”
According to Dr. Simmons, the question of how to respond to the climate faced by individuals in America today.
“I don’t have to allude to anything specific, because you all know what I’m talking about,” she said. “We’re in the midst of it right now. What do we do?”
Dr. Simmons explained that through his teachings, Dr. King “showed us a way forward instead of a way backward” by providing an example of “how to be exacting” in the expectations and goals individuals today set for themselves.
“We teach our children not to do what they think they can, but to strive to do what they think they probably can’t do,” she said. “We have to set the same goals for ourselves.”
Dr. Simmons pointed out that often, those striving to follow the teaching of Dr. King “endorse aspects that his teaching deemed relevant for our adversaries, while ignoring admonishments relevant to how we behave.
“We, as a community, are good at that,” she said. “Those people are doing this, and those people are doing that. We have to turn that on ourselves. What are we doing?”
Dr. Simmons described Dr. King as “an incredible person for self-reflection.”
Dr. Simmons shared an experience she had while on a visit to the ashram of Mahatma Ghandi in India.
“There was a buzz around, because the staff in the ashram realized that I was an African-American,” she recalled. “They were very excited.”
Dr. Simmons was informed by the staff of the ashram that Dr. King had paid a visit of his own to the location during his lifetime.
“He asked them to permit him one thing,” Dr. Simmons said. “He wanted to sleep in the ashram on the floor overnight. He wanted to reflect on this man of nonviolence. He wanted to reflect deeply, and he wanted to be alone in this building with his thoughts.”
According to Dr. Simmons, that brand of “deep reflection” is needed among individuals in the present day in regard to their own actions.
“Racism and bigotry is problematic not just when others perpetrate hostility in its name, but also when we, in the very secret enclaves of our thoughts and actions, think and express racist beliefs,” she said. “If we are to be serious about being with King on the right side of history, we must actively work to banish bigoted behavior from our own actions.”
Dr. Simmons compared the environment created by allowing room for any form of bigotry in everyday actions to a Petri dish in which discrimination and hatred can flourish.
“Like King, we must rid ourselves of hatred of the other,” Dr. Simmons said. “Second, we can hope.”
Dr. Simmons regarded James Melvin Washington’s edition of the writing of Dr. King, titled ‘The Testament of Hope.’
“King was fundamentally optimistic,” Dr. Simmons said. “In the face of death threats and bombings, he was optimistic. In the face of jailings, he was optimistic. In the face of bitter and dangerous adversaries, he was optimistic.”
Dr. Simmons explained that King cited “the sense of affirmation generated by the challenge of embracing struggle and surmounting obstacles” as the source from which his optimism arose.
“In other words, when you do the work of justice, you can’t help but be optimistic,” Dr. Simmons explained. “Because as you surmount obstacle after obstacle, you’re going to feel better about the future.
“That is what we must do – remain optimistic, because we are engaged in the struggle to improve lives and build a beloved community,” Dr. Simmons continued. “Remain hopeful, because we are actively working to surmount obstacles to equality and justice. Remain stalwart, because we are responding to virulent hatred and fearing our own hearts of hate.”
Dr. Simmons said that before responding to the hatred of other people, one must first clear it from their own hearts.
Dr. Simmons described Dr. King as a “beacon” to the young individuals living during his time.
“We cannot be the giant that he was, but we can strive to live our lives in ways that point to the validity of the King ethic,” she said. “We can live out loud, exposing our uncertainties and wrestling with solutions to intractable societal problems.
Dr. Simmons went on to say that individuals today can answer the call of Dr. King to raise their voices “in the service of humanity” by speaking out against “power and privilege” and standing up for the rights of those whose rights are being infringed upon.
“We can be drum majors for justice not just for our clan and our personal interests, but for the human race,” she said.
Dr. Simmons expressed her belief that the memory of Dr. King will still be commemorated by those living a century from now.
“But those of us privileged to live in these times are closer to his example than those who will look to him a century from now,” she said. “We must use this proximity to his lived example to renew our commitment to the just world for which he fought and which he died.”
Sarah Naron may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.