When it came to the question of how to utilize her life, Esmeralda Simmons had little trouble deciding exactly what to do.
“I cut my teeth as an activist in the student protest movement. So I have been active since then. This is my calling,” said Simmons about her days as a student at Hunter College and the political climate during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, which sparked her career choice.
As founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College (CUNY), Simmons has been an advocate for the disenfranchised in the African American community for the past 28 years. During that time, she’s seen the need for the center’s services intensify.
“I wish I could say we didn’t need to do this work. But there’s so much of it, we can’t handle it all,” she said.
To help Simmons and CLSJ help the often underserved and underrepresented members of its Brooklyn community and beyond, a special production of “Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou” took place at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 9, 2014. Part of the proceeds from the event benefitted the center; a portion of all parterre-level tickets sold included a donation to CLSJ.
CLSJ Serves the Underserved
CLSJ is a nonprofit, community-based service organization that provides advocacy, research, training and legal services in a number of areas. Those areas include education, immigration, misuse of police authority and voting rights.
Fannie Lou is a new, original musical inspired by the life of grassroots voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. The work, written by playwright/composer Felicia Hunter, had its world premiere in New York City in 2012. “Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou: At Carnegie Hall” was a sumptuous evening of selected music and dialogue from the musical, presented in concert format. More than a dozen singer-actors, accompanied by a six-piece instrumental ensemble, brought Fannie Lou Hamer’s struggle for voting rights to the world-renowned Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall stage.
In addition to the performance, the evening featured perspective-setting dialogue about the history, impact and importance of voting rights in the United States. Simmons was a featured speaker during this portion of the evening, highlighting some of the work CLSJ has conducted in voting rights areas such as redistricting, where it continues to focus its efforts.
Supreme Court Decision Created
Another issue discussed was the Voting Rights Act, itself. Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights pioneers fought long and hard – many giving their lives – so the 1965 legislation ensuring the right to vote for all citizens would see the light of day. Yet, in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a crucial section of the Act, grossly weakening its effectiveness. The development arguably has made the job of CLSJ as a voting-rights watchdog and legal advocate even more difficult.
“It is a very, very serious situation. Redistricting will be back with us in six years,” said Simmons, adding that raising funds to support researchers and other needed staff is an ongoing CLSJ need.
“Which is why the Fannie Lou performance is so important to us,” Simmons said.
She recalled that as a student activist “I was inspired at the time by the likes of Fannie Lou Hamer. I got involved supporting local progressive candidates," she said. "I was heavily involved in the Brooklyn Black Empowerment movement. I’ve been strongly involved in voting rights issues ever since.”
After completing her studies, which included a law degree, Simmons held a number of public service positions. She was the first deputy commissioner for the New York State Division of Human Rights. She also served as a civil rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Education, a New York State assistant attorney general, and a New York City assistant corporation counsel, among other appointments. She is the recipient of a number of awards and citations, including recently being honored as a Woman of Distinction by the New York State Senate. She also serves on several boards and has volunteered her time substantially.
“Half of my career doing voting rights work was doing volunteer work,” she said, adding, “Nobody has enough money to pay you to fight for your freedom.”
That was something Fannie Lou Hamer also understood, Simmons noted.
“Fannie Lou Hamer was an inspiration to me because she knew exactly what the consequences were going to be before [she acted],” said Simmons. “She had a ‘good job’ on the plantation, which she lost. Then she organized others, telling them not to be afraid.”
While some question the need for the kind of grassroots activism Fannie Lou Hamer involved herself in, Simmons says handing over the fate of one’s life to established political parties is not an option.
“Fannie Lou Hamer taught us the answer to that,” said Simmons. “No, they [major parties] have their own special interests. We have to hold their feet to the fire.”
And, Simmons adds, effectively communicating this is essential.
“If Fannie Lou were alive today, she’d be on Twitter, she’d be on Facebook, all those other social media avenues,” said Simmons, “letting people know what they have to do and when."
The energy and innovative thinking needed to effectively continue the struggle for voting and civil rights will come from young people, Simmons said. “There are tremendous numbers of young people who want to do this work,” she said, adding that she encounters students and others who are committed to following in the footsteps of Fannie Lou Hamer.
“She’s an icon, and she doesn’t fit the mold,” Simmons continued. “She was about getting the work done and making sure people’s rights are respected. And we are all entitled to all of our rights. We are all sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Securing and maintaining voting rights – choosing representatives and elected public servants you want and who will work on your behalf, throwing out those you don’t want who don’t work on your behalf -- is among the solutions that will help cure societal injustices, said Simmons.
“If ‘we’ put our shoulders to the wheel, it will happen,” she said. “If we wait for somebody else to do it, it won’t.”
Support the Center for Law and Social Justice
We sincerely thank those who supported the work of the Center for Law and Social Justice by coming to see “Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou: At Carnegie Hall,” on Oct. 9, 2014 and purchasing a benefit ticket. Your generosity is very much appreciated.