Michael Simmons is a human rights activist who has been working in peace and justice activities for over 40 years. From his early organizing activities in the African American Civil Rights Movement, to anti-war and nuclear non-proliferation movements, to advocacy on behalf of women and Roma in Europe, Michael has been at the forefront of social justice and social change organizing in wide variety of contexts and issues.
Michael’s lifelong commitment to non-violent social change found early expression when, at the age of 19, he and a close friend organized a march of 3000 people in his native Philadelphia, in support of the 1965 March on Selma, Alabama to secure voting rights for African Americans. Soon after, Michael moved to the South, where he became an active member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the major civil rights organizations in the 1960s. In his time with SNCC, Michael worked on many issues central to the African American civil rights movement, including desegregation and voter registration. He was involved in community organizing, led training workshops for African American college students on organizing and non-violence and, as a member of the Atlanta Project of SNCC, was one of the authors of the SNCC Black Consciousness Paper. The Black Consciousness Paper called for self-determination in the Black community, and emphasized the importance of building of African American-controlled institutions.
During his time in the South, working in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, Michael was arrested over 10 times for his protest activities. Michael also organized African American resistance to military conscription in general and the Vietnam War in particular. SNCC was the first mainstream civil rights organization to take a public stance opposing the war. Michael helped draft the SNCC statement against the war, and spent two and a half years in jail for his own refusal to be inducted into the military.
While a student at Temple University, from 1963-65, Michael had played a leading role in the formation of Conscience, a student group that developed after-school programs and summer programs for neighborhood youth. Returning to Temple in 1968-1969, Michael was a leader in the formation of the Steering Committee for Black Students (SCBS), an organization that encompassed all African American student groups on the campus. SCBS played a pivotal role in developing Black consciousness among African American students, and in challenging institutional racism in the university. The SCBS spearheaded the formation of a “Special Recruitment and Admission Program” to increase the number of Black students admitted to the University, and advocated for the establishment of the Pan African Institute, an African American studies department.
In the 1970’s Michael served as the National Director for Housing and Employment for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). He played a leading role in the formation of the Southwest Workers Federation, a group of 300 workers in 7 cities in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana, organized around class action employment discrimination law suits. The lawsuits resulted in nearly 500 workers either securing employment or moving to a higher employment grade. Michael was instrumental in the formation of a worker-controlled law firm to facilitate this work.
Later, Michael became the Director of AFSC’s Southern Africa Program. In that capacity Michael initiated the use of divestment as a tactic in the anti-apartheid movement. He organized educational conferences and seminars across the US on issues of colonialism and apartheid in southern Africa, and coordinated speaking tours for southern Africa activists. In 1976 Michael represented AFSC’s Third World Coalition on an international delegation to Cuba to build support for Angolan independence.
From 1983-86 Michael was Program Director for the Philadelphia-based Crisis Intervention Network (CIN), a city-wide organization devoted to the development of non-violent solutions to community conflicts. He worked to end violence among street gangs, developed workshops to promote inter-racial understanding, and established a neighborhood dispute resolution program in which the police, the schools and community organizations worked together to address problems.
In 1986 Michael was appointed Director for European Programs of the AFSC. Until the early 1990s, Michael’s work focused on Cold War issues, including organizing reciprocal exchanges between scholars and journalists from the Soviet Union and the United States. Discussions between US and Soviet participants in the Soviet Union covered issues such as human rights, nuclear weapons, and regional conflicts; in the United States the participants attended meetings at the Council on Foreign Relations, think tanks such as the Brookings Institute, and the Carter Center. Later, Michael expanded the program into a three-way exchange, bringing in participants from Third World nations for discussions on the impact of East-West tensions on the Third World. As the Cold War subsided, Michael began developing conferences and seminars in Central Europe on new challenges facing countries in the transition from communism, including transition from planned to market economies, demilitarization, and human rights.
Representing AFSC, in 1995 Michael was a founding member of Abolition 2000, an international NGO working to eliminate nuclear weapons. During the UN discussions of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty in 1995 and 1997 in New York and Geneva, Michael was part of a delegation of peace activists lobbying governments to strengthen the Treaty. In 1997 Michael helped to organize an international anti-nuclear meeting in Tahiti. The meeting engaged anti-nuclear activists from many countries in the Pacific including the Marshall Islands, Palau, New Zealand, Australia, Tonga, along with activists from Europe and the US. Later that year Michael organized a panel discussion at the UN in Geneva that brought together anti-nuclear activists from Africa, Asia, the Pacific Rim to discuss the impact of nuclear testing on the Third World.
In 1993, Michael established a Central European regional office of the American Friends Service Committee in Budapest, Hungary. With the breakup of Yugoslavia, Michael shifted into anti-war, relief, and reconciliation work. He supported peace groups of all ethnicities throughout the former Yugoslavia, and contributed to the establishment of the “Women in Black” multi-ethnic Yugoslavian peace organization. He also organized US speaking tours for Bosnian women war victims. At the end of the war in Yugoslavia, Michael did relief work in Bosnia and served as an election monitor for the first post-war Bosnian municipal elections.
During the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, Michael coordinated AFSC’s relief work in refugee camps in Macedonia, Bosnia and Hungary. He also developed the concept of community gardens as a method of bringing Muslim, Croat and Serb together on a common project. The first community garden, begun in Sarajevo with 19 participants, eventually grew into a network of 14 gardens throughout Bosnia, involving over 2000 people. In Hungary, Michael’s AFSC work included supporting a “safe house” for Serbian conscientious objectors.
Post-war, Michael’s work was centered in Mitrovica, Kosovo, facilitating the formation of a Roma political party, developing programs to provide psychological support for Albanian youth, and securing funding for a Serbian Roma kindergarten. Michael’s post war work also included setting up a day care center for working mothers in Hungary who had fled as refugees from the NATO bombing campaign in Serbia.
During the early 90’s Michael began to meet with Roma activists in Central Europe. Realizing that the Roma community had an affinity with the African American civil rights movement, Michael began focused work with Roma. In 1995 he organized a historic seminar that engaged African Americans from SNCC and SCLC with Roma activists from Central Europe. He also organized forums and meetings for Roma activists who traveled to the US. In 2001 he organized a week long training session for 25 Roma activists from Central Europe. The African American trainers centered their presentations in the experiences of the African American civil rights movement. The trainers were four African Americans, including activists, academics, and a film maker.
In the aftermath of the horrible events on September 11, 2001, Michael was part of a two-person team sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee that traveled to Europe to give an alternative assessment of the political landscape in the US. The two-person delegation traveled to the UK, Scotland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark, speaking with parliamentarians, journalists, peace activists and academics. In Brussels they met with NATO and EU officials. Building on this effort, Michael participated in the 2002 meeting of the European Network for Peace and Human Rights in Cordoba, Spain. In January 2003 Michael was invited to Turkey by a coalition of Turkish peace organizations to lobby the Turkish Parliament not to allow the US to use Turkey in the impending attack on Iraq. Later that year Michael presented a paper, War on Civil Liberties, to the 2003 meeting of the European Network for Peace and Human Rights held in Brussels.
In 2003 Michael began an investigation of sex trafficking in the Balkans, traveling to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia and Moldova. Michael’s investigation led to a regional conference on sex trafficking in the Balkans in 2004 with the inclusion of NGO representation from Kosovo and Montenegro. Breaking with the mold of intergovernmental NGOs inviting indigenous NGOs to a conference run by the large international organizations, Michael organized a regional planning committee composed of indigenous NGOs who conceptualized the conference and developed the agenda.
Michael has lectured on US foreign and military policy; nuclear weapons; human rights, racism and sexism; conflict resolution; and African American history at many universities in the in the US, Africa and Europe. They include Morehouse, Fisk, Howard, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Moscow State University, London School of Economics, Harare University, ELTE University (Budapest), Charles University (Prague), and the Central European University (Budapest). He has been a political commentator for Pacifica News and has appeared on many radio and television programs discussing peace and international relations. He has published articles on these and other subjects in Southern Exposure, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Nuclear Times and various newspapers in the US and Europe. His writings have also been published in various anthologies on the civil rights movement.