Next generation: Activist Montague Simmons eases into lead role with a little help from his friends
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2010 - In January, he stood before friends and mentors, people in the community he respected and people he'd soon lead. On the 30th anniversary of the Organization for Black Struggle, Montague Simmons took on the role as the group's chair.
First, he stood with his hands on the shoulders of one of the group's founders and the chair for the last 20 years, Jamala Rogers. Then, they turned, and she placed her hands on his shoulders.
"I really thought, I'm responsible for a great deal," says Simmons, 36.
It was just meant to be symbolic.
But through Rogers' hands, Simmons felt the weight of what he was taking on as the new chair. In his new role, he wants to focus on issues of police brutality and racial profiling, on internal issues within the black community, like homophobia, on economic inequalities and education.
'A natural leader'
Simmons' parents moved to St. Louis from Mississippi where the realities of race in the South were tangible. They left because they felt they had no choice.
He grew up and attended Normandy High School in the '90s, when the school was becoming a poster child for school violence. He remembers that walks home from school often included harassment by police.
Simmons saw how people viewed his school, how one broadcaster who'd visited described the campus as creepy, and he wanted to challenge that image.
At Lincoln University in Jefferson City, he got involved with the Student Government Association. There, the faculty treated the group like a leadership lab where he learned to challenge university authority in creative and professional ways. Simmons learned about running meetings, hosting events, managing budgets and organizing people, he says.
In his sophomore year at Lincoln, Simmons met LaRhonda Wilson through the SGA. They've remained friends since.
"Montague was a natural leader," says Wilson, now a professor at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley.
She wanted to start a new organization, and knew that with Simmons' support, it would happen.
"He proved me right," she says.
The group, the Nubian Educational Society, worked to cultivate a sense of cultural identity on the campus, where Simmons says there was little formal discussion of heritage and culture. They held discussions on politics, history and social issues that affected black students, and expanded into hosting Kwanzaa celebrations, among other things.
"NES allowed me, personally, to explore culture with other students and expand the presence of culture on campus in ways that SGA wasn't doing at the time," Simmons says. "After we, NES, began working on campus, and pressing the issue, we, SGA, began to push into more controversial areas, bringing more controversial speakers, and hosting more culturally relevant events."
It seems natural now, looking back, that Simmons would become an activist and an organizer. It's part of his nature, Wilson says, to lead and become engaged.
"I don't think Montague makes a friend that he doesn't feel responsible for," she says. "And I don't think Montague lives in a community that he doesn't feel responsible for."
Light, not heat
Simmons, who works by day for an investment firm in St. Louis, felt burnt out after college. He was still paying attention to the issues, but getting other people's attention was hard work, and he felt discouraged by their apathy.
When Wilson invited him to do some volunteer work with OBS, Simmons figured he'd give it a try. How much time could it take? Quickly, he was drawn into the group's work.
"I guess Jamala saw the exact same leadership abilities," Wilson says.
The Organization for Black Struggle, which was founded in 1973, built upon movements that came before it, like the Black Panthers and the civil rights movement. And then it moved forward, with the mission of building "a movement that fights for political empowerment and economic justice and the cultural dignity of the African-American community, especially the black working class."
The group doesn't shy away from the word radical, Simmons says, even if other people have made the word something to fear.
"OBS has been, is now and always should be considered radical," he says. "Radical only means that we advocate for fundamental change."
OBS confronts both power and themselves, he says. "We believe that oppression is oppression is oppression," he says. "Oppression is our primary enemy, and every oppressive dynamic that exists gives birth to another. So our fight for full and equal citizenship as black people is inseparable for the fight of women, immigrants, members of the LGBT community, and on and on."
Members vary in age, background, politics and gender, though they're primarily working class and low-income, with most people of color and slightly more women than men. That makeup reflects the communities OBS works with, Simmons says.
Rogers, who's led the group for the last 20 years, knew Simmons through his involvement in hip hop, and the two had friends in common. But the more she got to know him, the more she saw qualities that make a real leader. Simmons was steady, she says, stable, an anchor.
"There's young people who have lots of energy," she says. "And they may even have lots of ideas, but they don't have the stability to stay and make something work."
Those people have a lot of heat, she says, not a lot of light.
Simmons has that light.
"I don't think that he's come into his own yet," Rogers says. "I think he's still trying to figure out what his own strengths are and how we can move the organization."
His strengths include his ability to reach his own generation, Rogers thinks. "I think he can challenge them," she says. "He can do things that probably I can't do."
The art of a movement
Simmons has no order to the issues important to him moving forward, but there are many and they're not issues with simple solutions.
They include police brutality, racial profiling and what he calls the pipelining of young people into prison. Simmons plans on continuing work on the last issue with the Youth Council for Positive Development, where young people are encouraged to challenge what they see happening, taught what they might not be learning elsewhere and empowered.
For decades, Simmons says, OBS has advocated for local control of the police department and called for a civilian oversight board with subpoena power.
And the results of the recent report by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster that shows that black drivers are stopped at increasingly higher rates than white or Hispanic drivers doesn't really surprise Simmons.
"Though departments around the state have been capturing data, they have yet to create systems to hold departments accountable for instances of profiling," he says. "Worse, there are still ongoing issues with even registering complaints against police."
OBS hopes to talk with the police board soon about how changes can be made.
In the past, Simmons says, the group has worked closely with the ACLU and the Mound City Bar Association, which have been effective partners.
He's also been active in culture work. Art, music and spoken word have the ability to get past people's barriers and deliver a message in ways other forms of communication can't, he says.
"The challenge now is trying to do the same thing with not just reggae, but say with hip hop, say with the graphic artists," Simmons says.
And he now has both the training and the background to do that. Last fall, Simmons participated in the Community Arts Training Institute through the Regional Arts Commission. He was one of 16, eight from the arts and eight from community activist groups, organizers, social workers and educators, who participated in the cross-training.
"Montague really stood out because he has the potential not only to be the leader of his organization, but to be a community leader," says Roseann Weiss, director of RAC's Community Art Programs and Public Art Initiatives.
In St. Louis, a major roadblock continues to be the racial divide, she says. "I think he understands that arts can be part of the picture of being able to cross that divide."
And after years of community organizing, Simmons also understands that to be effective, you have to reach people on every level. It's not just rallies or campaigns, not just door-to-door, not just concerts and shows. It's everything, consistently. It's using all the tools available, including the Web and Facebook.
Wilson sees her friend helping OBS to regain the support from the community it had when it first started. She thinks the issues still remain, but the people affected don't see the need like they once did. And she thinks he's the person to make that happen.
"When Montague gets involved with something, he doesn't stand around the sidelines," she says. "He dives in completely."