The 10th anniversary of the Evett L. Simmons ’79 Center for Multicultural Appreciation at Florida Southern College was observed on Feb. 8, 2023. The anniversary events included a speech given by the building’s namesake, a convocation address, the awarding of an honorary doctorate, and several other special events.
A Special Address
After President Anne B. Kerr completed her introductions and greetings at the combined celebration and Convocation, political science major Sophia Francisco ’23, who is president of FSC’s Multicultural Student Council, Vice President of the Diversity and Inclusion Council, and a member of the Student Government Association introduced Evett L. Simmons, Florida Southern alumna, trustee, and benefactress.
Ms. Simmons talked about her experiences integrating public schools in Florida as a young student and how visiting, then later attending, FSC changed her life. She warned students not to repeat the mistakes of the past and asked them to make a commitment to support each other.
“My life’s motto has been, ‘Lord let me be a conduit of your blessings to others, as you’ve allowed me to receive my blessing from you through others,’” Simmons said. “I encourage each of you to be thankful, because it can always be worse. Embrace your diversity. Strive for equity. And settle for nothing less than inclusion.”
The Convocation Address
Assistant Dean of Student Engagement and Director of the Evett L. Simmons Center for Multicultural Appreciation Thomas A. Range introduced the Convocation speaker, Mr. Fred D. Gray, Sr. Mr. Gray remarked that he discovered that he and Thomas Range, who he had met for the first time two days prior, were related and it was the first time a relative had introduced him as a speaker.
Attorney Gray was the ideal person to be the Convocation speaker as part of the Simmons Center anniversary celebration. During the Civil Rights Movement, he rose to prominence working as a personal attorney for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., prompting Dr. King to refer to him as “the chief counsel for the protest movement.” Attorney Gray is an iconic activist and attorney who has been a mentor to many, including Ms. Simmons.
He thanked FSC for the honorary degree and Ms. Simmons for allowing him to receive it during the anniversary celebration for the Simmons Center. In his speech, Attorney Gray shared that he made a secret commitment while he was a college student.
“That commitment was to finish college.” he said. “Go to somebody’s law school and graduate, and return to Alabama, pass the Alabama bar exam, become a lawyer, and destroy everything segregated I could find. That is what I’ve tried to do for over 68 years.”
Attorney Gray went on to say he never dreamed that a prestigious college like Florida Southern would honor him.
His only concern in his life was to obtain all the rights and privileges that African Americans are entitled to under the constitution and laws of the United States of America. He said he would humbly accept the award on behalf of all his clients who have trusted him.
Attorney Gray said he particularly accepted the award on behalf of his unknown clients and the 623 men who endured the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, one of his most notable court cases. He added that he accepted the award on behalf of the unknown people who marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to bring about the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was also accepting the honor on behalf of those who participated in the sit-ins, freedom rides, freedom walks, and those who demonstrated against injustice in this country. He accepted on behalf of Evett Simmons as well, for what she has done and for what she learned at Florida Southern College.
“We have made substantial progress, but the struggle for equal justice continues,” Attorney Gray said. “We must complete the task of eliminating racism and inequality.”
The nonagenarian concluded his remarks by referencing a conversation he had with the late civil rights activist and Congressman John R. Lewis (D-Ga.) before the congressman’s passing. Congressman Lewis told him to, “Keep pushing. Keep going. Set the record straight.”
Intertwining the words of Congressman Louis with those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Attorney Gray advised all persons interested in civil rights and eliminating inequality and racism to, “Keep pushing. Keep going. Set the record straight. Do it in a nonviolent manner and continue to do it until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Attorney Gray ended his address by pledging to continue to fight for equality and justice under the law, until all of God’s children are truly free.
Freshmen tennis player and studio arts major from Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, Kennedi Brown called Attorney Gray powerful and inspiring.
“It makes me feel proud,” Brown said. “I’m honored that he (Attorney Gray) made us (the campus community) come together as one.”
Faculty and staff members in attendance were pleased as well.
“I’m excited to be a part of an institution that values diversity and takes the time to actually recognize not just a lawyer, but a civil rights icon,” Associate Professor of Chemistry and Department Chair Dr. Shameka Shelby Ph.D., said. “It shows our students how they can also play a part in the larger story that is America and to see how impactful they can be as well. It motivates me to do more, and I hope it does the same for our students.”
The Block Party
After a luncheon in the Eleanor Searle Drawing Room, there was a two-hour block party on Johnson Avenue, directly across from the Simmons Center.
Osteen, Fla. artist CeCe Teneal serenaded Ms. Simmons and members of the campus community with a variety of popular songs curated with Ms. Simmons’ help. Ms. Teneal showed off her vocal range by performing songs made famous by well-known artists like Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, and Prince. Her powerful voice could be heard across campus, while students, faculty, and staff members enjoyed the music and refreshments. Dr. Kerr showed off her dance skills during several songs.
Evett L. Simmons, Esq.
Evett L. Simmons ’79 earned her bachelor of arts degree in English from Florida Southern College, prior to receiving her juris doctor from the Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University. She made a sizable donation to Florida Southern more than a decade ago, which is the reason the College’s multicultural center bears her name.
An attorney recognized nationally for her advocacy for diversity, Simmons chairs the FSC Board’s Diversity Task Force. The former Moc wanted the Evett L. Simmons Center for Multicultural Appreciation to be a place where minorities, as individuals and as members of various organizations, could plan for and encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout the College.
“It fills my heart,” Simmons said about making the Multicultural Center available to students, “because when I was here there was nothing, absolutely nothing. I believe in the school. But if you don’t do something to make it happen, it’s not going to happen. So, I decided I was going to reach back and pray that they [the College] reached back, and then the College would be what it was supposed to be, diverse but inclusive.”
Evett Simmons’ generosity has positively impacted the lives of numerous FSC students and staff. She is the embodiment of the tenets of the Florida Southern College motto, “Light, Wisdom, Law.” Students who spend time in the Evett L. Simmons Center for Multicultural Appreciation view her as a role model.
“I’m proud of the kids,” Simmons said. “I love the kids. It fills my heart that they come and take advantage of the center. We have to get a bigger center because we have more kids. So, that’s the future. But the future starts with the present.”
Follow the Evett L. Simmons Center for Multicultural Appreciation at Florida Southern College on Instagram at @fscsmc.