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UF hosts talk, signing for new civil rights book ‘Stayed on Freedom’

Event featured UF alum Dan Berger, Black Power activists

Dr. Dan Berger, a UF alum and author, signs his books and talks with attendees at a UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program event on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.
Dr. Dan Berger, a UF alum and author, signs his books and talks with attendees at a UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program event on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.

As Black History Month comes to a close, Dan Berger and Zoharah Simmons brought a personal piece of history to life in UF’s Smathers Library on Thursday, Feb. 23.

Berger, a UF alum, spoke to an audience of about 40 people about his new book “Stayed on Freedom” about the experiences of activists Zoharah and Michael Simmons during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. 

The book explores their lives as they met and fell in love while participating in the movement. 

The event was part of the UF’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program’s Challenging Racism at UF series. It featured a moderated discussion involving Berger, Zoharah Simmons and Paul Ortiz, a history professor and SPOHP director.

During the discussion, Berger recounted the admiration and inspiration he felt when he, as a UF student, first heard Simmons tell her story and experiences during the movement. 

He felt a desire to tell the stories of people who weren’t among the famous activists who everyone knows about, Berger said.

“I really wanted to write history — but also in a way that emphasized the everyday people as being the driving force of history,” he said. “So we can get away from this focus on leaders and recognized spokespersons.”

Simmons told the audience about her life as an activist and her respect for Berger’s drive to tell her and her ex-husband’s story. 

“When Dan approached me seven years ago about doing a book, I was like, ‘Get out of here,’’” she said.

She also emphasized the importance of continuing to protest and fight for human rights in the face of recent political trends. In particular, Simmons said she takes issue with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ actions against Black history classes and diversity, equity and inclusion programs at universities.

“This has stirred up so many memories and so much reflection on the past in relation to the present,” she said. “It’s amazing that we’re here on a day when you had to have a teach-in on rising fascism that seemingly has its real foundation here in our own state.”

What’s happening today is troubling, Simmons said, especially after working hard in her lifetime to advance civil rights.

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“Clearly, all the work that we did in the movements, both before my time and during my time, there’s a concerted effort to undo that,” she said.

Twenty-year-old UF junior Sophia De La Cruz, a political science major who was involved with organizing the event, was hopeful the audience members would be inspired by the speakers.

“For any event, you want to have an impact on as many people as possible, and as deep an impact, ” she said. “I feel like we got to hear a lot of impactful things from Dr. Simmons.”

The attendees of the event agreed on their belief in the importance of elevating Black stories, especially during Black History Month.

Contact Ben at bcrosbie@ufl.edu. Or follow him on Twitter @benHcrosbie.

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