By Becci Robbins
“The movement rises up when the pressure comes down,” is one of the many sayings of Modjeska Simkins to be found in a new booklet on her life published by the South Carolina Progressive Network. Modjeska was born in Jim Crow’s early days in 1899 in Columbia South Carolina and passed away, after an extraordinary life, at 92 years of age.
Modjeska bridled at being called a “civil rights” activist and insisted that the fight for human rights was “not just for black people,” she said, “but for all mankind.” She graduated from Benedict College in 1921 and taught algebra at Booker T. Washington School. They wanted her to teach South Carolina history, but she refused to use what she called a “racist textbook.” Thus began her lifelong habit of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.
In 1931, Modjeska became the state’s only statewide public health worker as the director of Negro work for the South Carolina Anti-Tuberculosis Association. One of the most devastating effects of Jim Crow was the ill health of black people caused by poverty, poor living conditions and a lack of health care. She lost the job when she wouldn’t quit the NAACP.
Modjeska was a founder of the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP and served as the state secretary from 1941 through 1957, the only woman to hold statewide office during the organization’s most productive years.
She led the fight to end the white-only Democratic primaries in 1944. The South Carolina legislature, all white and Democratic at the time, met in special session to deem the party a private club so they could continue to exclude blacks. “Even though the Supreme Court had given us the right, these cats started making up new rules that you couldn’t vote,” Modjeska said.
Modjeska’s home at 2025 Marion St. provided a meeting place and accommodations for state and national leaders in the long fight for equality. In 1950, Modjeska worked at her kitchen table with Thurgood Marshall to develop the Briggs v. Elliott federal court case that eventually merged with the case of Brown v. Board of Education that ended the “separate but equal” doctrine in 1954.
Modjeska left the Republican Party in the late 1940’s, considering them more racist than the Democrats. In 1957, she was kicked out of the NAACP for working with communists and in 1966, Gov. McNair asked her to leave the Democratic Party because of her friendship with Herbert Aptheker, New York professor of Marxist history.
As the civil rights struggle wound down, Modjeska kept up the fight for human rights. She spoke out against the Vietnam war, worked for equal rights for women and labor rights for workers, and marched against South African apartheid and US wars in Central America. She continued to help anyone who knocked on her door.
In 1976, Modjeska became a mentor for the Grass Roots Organizing Workshop in Columbia (GROW). GROW founded the South Carolina Progressive Network in 1995 that carries on Modjeska’s work and has their office in her historic home in downtown Columbia.
Vilified by generations of politicians who served in the legislature, Modjeska’s contributions to our state were finally recognized with the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest award, in 1990, and her portrait now hangs in the State House lobby.
The Progressive Network is organizing the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights to insure that her lessons are learned by new generations of social justice activists and organizers. The new biography: Modjeska Monteith Simkins, a South Carolina Revolutionary, was researched and written by Becci Robbins, the Communications Director for the Progressive Network, and paid for by a grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission. The 42-page booklet can be downloaded here.
For information about the Progressive Network and the Modjeska school go to: www.scpronet.com. Inquires can be addressed, and hard copies of the book ordered, by contacting [email protected], or by calling 803-808-3384.
Becci Robbins is a graphic designer at Harbinger Publications, owner of Green Bein’ Studio in Lexington, SC, and communications director for the South Carolina Progressive Network.
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