“Throw me in! Throw me in!” he shouted boldly. “I’ll make a way.”
So God picked him up and threw him into the middle of the still pond. Big ripples formed — ripples that wet the feet of those who stood idly by, not wanting to trouble the waters of injustice, not wanting to change the status quo, not wanting to change at all.
Surprisingly, it only takes one. One rock can change the surface of a pond in a matter of minutes. Similarly, one strong outspoken man can change the mindset of a town in a few months.
Who started it, you may ask? Who started the ripples of justice and equity in Bulloch County? This person, this rock was Donnell Simmons, lovingly called “Donnie” by all who knew him and respected him.
Having the hand of God upon him, Mr. Simmons studied theology for two years at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, after graduating from William James High School, Class of 1958. At William James, he excelled as a debater, and for those who remember Mr. Simmons, it is quite evident that his high school training in this area was used throughout his adult life as he served his community in leadership positions.
His wife, Dorothy Smith Simmons, who spent 46 wonderful years with her husband, said, “Donnie always did his research,” which is the strongest part of a debater’s argument. In other words, Mr. Simmons always knew what he was talking about, and he had the audacity to speak it in order to create a climate of fairness within the county where he was born.
As a 10-year member of the Bulloch County Board of Education, he labored for the rights of all children, which caused him to speak out against unfair prekindergarten enrollment practices at Statesboro High School. Today, children of all races can participate in this federally funded day care. Mr. Joe Bill Brannon remembers how “Donnie” insisted that there be a public drawing for slots since, previously, only SHS teacher names were being drawn through the lottery, which statistically was impossible. Praising his efforts, Mr. Brannon said Donnie was extremely disliked by many people because “he stood up and raised h--ll!” Moreover, Mr. Simmons protested the Statesboro High School band’s non-participation in the Martin Luther King Jr. Parade. With his insistence and persistence, today this marching band, along with other community bands, helps to celebrate this holiday each year.
As president of the Bulloch County Chapter of the NAACP for eight consecutive years, Mr. Simmons started many ripples within Bulloch County by exposing unfair practices in hiring and in electing candidates to political offices, both locally and statewide. In addition, by serving on the Board of Trustees for Mission Outreach, he was able to help economically disadvantaged families of all races. In 2006, he received the Voice of the People award, which attests to his outspokenness.
Highly honored and well-respected, Mr. Simmons received several other accolades as he served his community. Being hailed as a crusader for civil rights, in 1998, he received the Robert B. Flanagan Award from the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP for having the largest year-end adult enrollment of any local NAACP branch. In addition, he was honored by the NAACP in 2001 for his exceptional service and leadership. In his remembrance, Professor Charles Bonds relates Mr. Simmons to “Moses” because he sought to free us from bondage, while Mrs. Aleathea Lewis says he was a great citizen who “believed in Statesboro.”
Retiring from Brooks Instruments in 1988, Mr. Simmons committed himself wholeheartedly to public service. Ironically, while in a wheelchair, he stood up the tallest and spoke out the loudest against social injustice in his community. Known for his humor and his wisdom, he told the youth of Bulloch County, who idealized him, “Get your education!” and “Stay out of trouble!” Called to rest at age 67, Mr. Simmons was a former athlete and avid sports fan, singer, board member, spokesman, church member, leader, civil activist, a dutiful husband and a loving father of three children and a grandfather of five.
Extremely outspoken and strong-willed, folks who knew him teasingly say that, “Donnie always wanted his way.” And today he has it, literally. In 2006, the city of Statesboro honored him with a street befittingly called “Donnie Simmons Way.”
Mr. Simmons definitely made the way for all citizens of Bulloch County to capitalize upon all of the rights afforded them both as children of God and members of humanity. Truly, having it his way made a way for us all. Without a doubt, the effects of his ripples are still evident in our county today.
Dr. Enola G. Mosley is an English teacher at Statesboro High School.