Freedom Rider reflects on youthful sacrifice, fearlessness
1st July 2014 · 0 Comments
By Nayita Wilson
Fifty years after deserting her youthful years to take on causes that would advance liberties for Blacks, Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons, 71, a Louisiana figure in the 1960 Civil Rights Movement, said she has no regrets about participating in the 1964 Freedom Summer, which championed voter registration for Blacks and correlated events that focused on the integration of public facilities and accommodations.
“It was important because as a person of color, I thought we deserved the same treatment as the whites. My parents have always taught us . . . that we were just as good as anybody else,” she said.
Considering her fight but without comparison, Smith-Simmons ponders what will ignite today’s youth to get involved in issues of the day. “I don’t see other young people standing up. Is it because they have everything they want,” she questioned.
Smith-Simmons was 15 years old when she was introduced to the Civil Rights Movement through the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP. At that time, her elder sister, Dorothy Smith Venison, along with friends Alice Thompson, Jean Thompson and others, had been recruited by the NAACP to desegregate Louisiana State University at New Orleans. Following chapter meetings, the young girls, would frequent the Golden Pheasant, a club on Claiborne Avenue.
Smith-Simmons wasn’t directly involved in the NAACP at that time, but she wanted the pleasure of attending the Golden Pheasant. So in exchange for not telling her parents about her elder sibling’s outings, Smith-Simmons received an NAACP membership and bus fare to the meetings, all of which were paid for by her sister. To her pleasing, she took advantage of many opportunities to play the jukebox at the Golden Pheasant without realizing that a more pressing destiny was being shaped.
Two years later, Smith-Simmons was asked to join the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to participate in picketing demonstrations. The opportunity to engage in the movement at this level fostered within her a deeper, more genuine commitment to the causes she believed in.
According to CORE’s history, the organization was founded in 1942 as the Committee for Racial Equality by a group of interracial students from the Mid-West. The founders organized non-violent direct action protests such as sit-ins, jail-ins and freedom rides during the Civil Rights Movement to advocate for racial equalities for Blacks. CORE’s principles and actions were fashioned after the nonviolent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
Smith-Simmons said CORE was less talk and more action. It won her interest by inviting her to engage in work as opposed to attending meetings that focused on discourse. Her willingness to join, however, brought an end to her membership with the NAACP, which according to Smith-Simmons, declined to offer assistance for consequences that she might encounter as a result of participating in CORE demonstrations.
“If you go to jail, we will not get you out,” was the warning Smith-Simmons said she received from the NAACP.
The admonishing didn’t stop her.
Smith-Simmons joined CORE and underwent an intense, required training, which included being slapped, called names, pushed out of chairs, fasting and refraining from speaking over an extend period of time. She was also required to get acquainted with Gandhi’s work.
Initially, her mother, Gladys Smith, had reservations about Smith-Simmons’ ability to maintain composure as a CORE member because she didn’t know how her daughter would respond if someone even “looked at her the wrong way.”
But the trainings and experiences taught Smith-Simmons self-control, and she said, overall, her family was supportive of her involvement, as were the families of most of the youth involved.
As time progressed, she found herself imprisoned on three occasions for various CORE protests and developing an attitude of fearlessness.
Once, she was arrested during a sit-in demonstration at Tulane and Broad streets near the New Orleans Police Department. The group sang “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around” and was told that the singing interfered with police communications.
Police dogs were brought out, the threat of arrest ensued, several of the demonstrators left and the remaining 15 demonstrators were arrested—nine of which were women.
“When you’re young, you have no fear,” she said.
“I was willing to die for the cause,” adds Smith-Simmons who thought for sure her life would be cut short at the age of 18 while working with New Orleans CORE members to test the Interstate Commerce Commission ruling of 1961, which outlawed discrimination in public transportation.
The near-death encounter occurred in November 1961, during a period when she and her New Orleans CORE colleagues were traveling throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama to test the upholding of the ruling in restaurants, public restrooms, bus terminals and waiting areas.
As she recalled, the group tested a lunch counter at a bus terminal in McComb, Miss. One CORE member, Jerome Smith was beaten with brass knuckles. Another, George Raymond, Jr. had hot coffee poured over his head. Others were chased and beaten, and Smith-Simmons and Alice were kicked during the test.
The team got separated during the frenzy, and Smith-Simmons remembers being chased by a group of white men. Somehow, she made it to the Black side of the terminal where she found refuge.
“(The) Blacks just encircled me. I stood there. My heart was racing. You’re going to walk out calmly,” she thought to herself.
Next, she said gathered her composure, exited the terminal calmly and then ran for her life. Moments later, her CORE family found her along the way, and they returned to the Black owned White Castle Hotel where they were staying. They received medical treatment at the hotel. Smith-Simmons was instructed to contact U.S. Attorney General Robert “Bobby” Kennedy directly, which she did. During the phone conversation, Kennedy advised that he was abreast of the situation and promised FBI protection, which Smith-Simmons said she declined.
Earlier that month, Smith-Simmons and CORE members were on a bus that made an unplanned stop at a general store in Poplarville, Miss. Two female members, Patricia Smith and Alice Thompson, exited the bus in an attempt to purchase something from the store; one male member, Frank Nelson, exited the bus to observe, and all three ended up being arrested.
From 1962 to 1963, she worked with CORE on Freedom Highway in North Carolina and South Carolina, which focused on integrating hotels, particularly the Howard Johnson. She also worked with the group on trying to integrate Florida beaches and participated on the March on Washington.
During the Freedom Summer of 1964, Smith-Simmons and New Orleans CORE focused on voter registration, primarily in New Orleans’ Desire housing development and its surrounding area. She worked for CORE’s Southern Region’s office and was less involved in the field. Her new responsibilities focused on teaching Blacks about constitutional matters in preparation for voter registration tests and participating in door-to-door voter registration campaigns.
“For me, I wanted to be out in the field, and I guess I felt what I did was great. It was a good feeling knowing that you were able to help someone,” she said.
Following Freedom Summer, national CORE began to hire individuals as field secretaries and task force workers. The organization also focused on becoming a member based organization. The competing interests of increasing membership and organizing communities took a toll on activities, and the organization later phased out, said Smith-Simmons who served as the last chair of New Orleans CORE.
Evaluating her overall involvement in the movement, Smith-Simmons said, “Women were the backbone of New Orleans CORE,” and they accounted for the majority of its membership. She said the women involved drew off of one another’s strength during those crucial encounters.
She also acknowledges the cost she paid to fight for freedom as a young woman. “I sacrificed, I guess, my youth. I wasn’t out doing what 17- and 18-year-olds were doing. I wasn’t going out dating,” she said. “My whole life was dedicated the movement.”
In the next phase of her life, Smith-Simmons life changed completely. She worked for Preservation Hall and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, which she helped found. She worked both jobs and also briefly operated a booking and management business for musicians prior to retirement. In 1971, she married John Simmons, a musician from England whom she met while working at Preservation Hall. Together, they have one son, John Cutler Smith Simmons II.
On June 21 – 23 of this year, she coordinated Freedom Summer & Beyond, A Commemoration. The conference took place in New Orleans to draw together those who participated in Freedom Summer and to inform others that the operation was not restricted to Mississippi.
Conference events were held at Xavier University where current university president Norman Francis, J.D., helped sneak Freedom Riders into a university dormitory and at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.—a popular New Orleans corridor that preserves the namesake of Smith-Simmons’ late friend and colleague.
Smith-Simmons was born on May 30, 1943 to Gladys Smith of Benton, Miss., Yazoo County, and Sam Smith of Lexington, Miss., Holmes County. Her parents moved to New Orleans in 1945 and raised 10 children: Dorothy, Doratha, Robert, Sam Jr., Audrey, Jesse, Walter, Stanley, Patricia and William.
Smith-Simmons attended Johnson Lockett for K-8 grades. She also attended Andrew J. Bell, 9th grade, Joseph S. Clark, 10th grade and George Washington Carver High School, 11th and 12 grades. She graduated from Carver in 1960.
Smith-Simmons currently resides in New Orleans.
This article originally published in the June 30, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.