Civil Rights Pilgrimage

SMU mourns the death of Prof. Dennis Simon, founding member of the Tower Center for Political Studies and leader of SMU’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage

Dennis SimonSMU Associate Professor of Political Science Dennis Simon died Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017 in Dallas after a long illness. An SMU faculty member since 1986, he was a recognized expert on the American presidency, national elections, women and the political glass ceiling, and the politics of change in the United States.

Passionate about his students and his work, he continued to teach and present lectures on the presidential elections to the SMU community through fall of 2016.

“Dennis Simon’s legacy at SMU will not be forgotten,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. “He was both a brilliant scholar and devoted teacher, talents he bridged with a sense of humor that never wavered. Dr. Simon invested his time, commitment and his passion for political science with his students, fellow scholars and the community. His influence will live on in the many lives he touched.”

The Texas House of Representatives “gaveled out” its regular session Tuesday, Feb. 14, in Simon’s memory on a motion by State Rep. Morgan Meyer. Services for Simon are pending.

Simon was quick to say that his proudest and most impactful work came in guiding since 2008 both undergraduate and graduate students on SMU’s annual Civil Rights Pilgrimage to historical sites across the south.  The 7-8 day bus trip occurs during Spring Break every year, creating an immersive learning experience that “pilgrims” describe as life changing.

During Simon’s 31 years as an SMU faculty member, he received nearly every teaching award offered by the University, including the “M” Award, the Willis Tate Award and President’s Associate Award. In 2005 he received the Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor Award, given to just four professors each year for their commitment to student learning. Known for his mentorship and dedication to teaching, he used U.S. elections as a living laboratory, teaching his popular course, “Presidential Elections,” every four years.

Simon’s other teaching and research interests included presidential-congressional relations, public opinion, electoral behavior and research methodology.  His research appeared in leading journals such as the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, and the Journal of Politics.  He was the recipient of the Pi Sigma Alpha award given by the Southern Political Science Association for his study of national forces in state legislative elections, and twice the Miriam Irish award given by the Southern Political Science Association for his study (with Assoc. Prof. Barbara Palmer) of the emergence of women in U.S. electoral politics.  His most recent book, with co-author Palmer, Women and Congressional Elections: A Century of Change (Lynne Reinner Publishers) was published in May of 2012. The book’s first edition was published in 2006.

Simon’s recent research projects included “The Perilous Experiment,” a historical and quantitative study tracing the evolution of popular and legislative leadership in the American presidency and “Southerners in the United States House of Representatives,” a history of electoral and ideological change in the South since 1930, supported by a grant awarded by the Dirksen Congressional Center. He earned his B.A. from Wittenberry University in Springfield, Ohio, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the department of political science at Michigan State University. Before joining SMU, Simon was an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.

Simon was a founding member of SMU’s John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies, where he served as a member of the Tower Center Faculty Advisory Board and as a senior fellow. The Tower Center was created in 1992 to promote the study of politics and international affairs and stimulate an interest in ethical public service.

“He was a dedicated supporter of our center, serving us in a variety of ways,” said the Hon. Dan Branch, chair of the Tower Center Board of Directors and former member of the Texas House of Representatives. “Most of all, he was a devoted mentor to our students.”

Simon also joined the faculty of SMU’s Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) program when he arrived in in 1986, teaching courses such as “Politics and Film,” and “The American Presidency” to hundreds of graduate students in the predominantly evening program. He began teaching “The Politics and Legacies of the Civil Rights Movement,” to both MLS students and undergraduates in 2008, combining it with an existing trip organized through the SMU Chaplain’s Office to historic sites in civil rights history. Simon never tired of sharing with an audience the “power of place” he said came with combining a semester-long course with personal experiences shared at the sites of civil rights violence and struggle.

> Watch Dennis Simon’s 2012 Maguire Public Scholar lecture at YouTube video

Dennis Simon, Civil Rights PilgrimageWith his Chaplain’s Office partner, Ray Jordan, and student leaders chosen each year, the trip featured stops at sites Simon described as “ground-zero,” in the civil rights movement, such as Little Rock High School, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home in Montgomery. History came alive at each spot, thanks to Simon’s friendships with original participants he called “foot soldiers” in the civil rights movement, who shared their recollections with students, sometimes hopping aboard the bus to lead tours.

The class and trip, sponsored by the Embrey Human Rights Program and SMU’s Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life, are now a core requirement of SMU’s human rights undergraduate major and the human rights emphasis in SMU’s Master of Liberal Studies program. Each year students share their thoughts and memories of the trip on an online blog.

> Read blog postings from the 2015 Civil Rights Pilgrimage on the 50th anniversary of the 1965 voting rights march

“I will always be thankful to Dr. Simon for showing us all what it looks like to not only celebrate the light, but to be the light in situations where it seems like the darkness might swallow us up,” said Michelle Anderson ’15, who served as student leader of the pilgrimage in 2015. “I’m missing our fearless leader already. Keep marching, pilgrims.” Anderson is pursuing a Ph.D. in media studies with a focus in transitional justice at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Simon also generously shared his expertise with the news media, serving as an expert on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, the impact of the John F. Kennedy assassination, the changing role of women in politics, and trends in presidential and mid-term elections. He regularly presented lectures to the community and served as a panel member at lecture series throughout the Dallas area.

See Dennis Simon’s last lecture, shared with the community Nov. 12 as a wrap-up of the 2016 presidential election

“The qualities that made Dennis a fine person – intelligence, enthusiasm, and honesty – made him an extraordinary teacher and mentor to his students,” said Joe Kobylka, SMU associate professor of political science and Simon’s longtime friend. “His passion for studying American politics and change electrified his lectures and infused his students with his enthusiasm. When that happens, education ensues, and Dennis was a master educator. I learned from him, as a student and then a colleague. I will draw on those lessons daily.”

> Find more of Dennis Simon’s work at SMU News

Another generation of SMU Civil Rights Pilgrims set out on March 4, 2016

This years travelers with the SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage will experience a different kind of spring break. They’ll join 50 others on an eight-day bus journey (March 4-12) to experience the history of the civil rights movement firsthand. I will be one of those lucky travelers.

CRP

This program, started in 2004, continues to grow each year. In 2008, the pilgrimage joined forces with Dr. Dennis Simon‘s Political Science course. Now the trip is also a requirement for undergraduate human rights majors and is offered to students in the Master of Liberal Studies Program.

Ray Jordan, trip leader, pastor and professor, came to our first class to discuss the pilgrimage. I wasn’t too excited about having a night class during my last semester in college, but Jordan made me excited about what was to come this semester. I was amazed by how far back the history of the pilgrimage went. This spring break, I’ll not only be experiencing years of American history but also years of SMU history. I’ll take part in an experience that is an integral part of what being an SMU student is all about.

Our journey will take us through the history of the civil rights movement. We’ll begin in Little Rock and visit Central High School and then move to Selma and walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We’ll be around for the anniversary of Bloody Sunday and then continue on through Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. We’ll meet former marchers, journalists, and activists. We’ll be meeting, as Dr. Simon describes, “the ordinary who accomplished extraordinary things.” Even with the itinerary in hand, I still am not sure what all I’ll be experiencing, but I’m sure it will all be worthwile. In just two weeks, I’ll be able to attach a face and a story to the names Dr. Simon has repeatedly mentioned in our Thursday night class.

As a book worm myself, I’m most excited to meet those whose memoirs we’ve read throughout the semester. Their stories of struggle and triumph are invigorating and well-written. They’re able to recount painful memories with eloquence and charge. For example, on March 8, we’ll be visiting with Rev. Robert Graetz, the author of A White Preacher’s Memoir. Graetz was assigned as pastor to Trinity Lutheran Church in the black community in Montgomery, Alabama. His memoir honestly retells the “brutal and dehumanizing treatment” of blacks and has already left an impact on my classmates and I. I can’t even imagine what it will be like to hear his experiences in person.

I’ve wanted to take part in this trip since I was a freshman, but it wasn’t until I declared my human rights major last spring that I knew for a fact that this is how I would spend my last spring break in college. I don’t think there could be a better way to round off my experience as a political science and human rights student at SMU.

Students on this year’s pilgrimage have every intent of recording events as they take place, so keep an eye out to hear about their emotional, educational and impactful experiences throughout the week.

Click here to learn more about SMU’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage and stay tuned to hear about this year’s pilgrims.

Nearly 50 will make 2009 Civil Rights Pilgrimage March 6

Lawrence Huggins with the SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2008Nearly 50 SMU community members will leave campus March 6 for a journey into living history. The 2009 Civil Rights Pilgrimage departs at 3 p.m. for an 8-day bus ride to the South’s civil rights landmarks.

This year’s contingent includes 18 undergraduates and 8 Master of Liberal Studies students, as well as 20 staff and other SMU community members, says Dennis Simon. Simon and Matthew Wilson, both associate professors of political science in SMU’s Dedman College, will make the pilgrimage, along with CRP Trip Coordinator Ray Jordan of the Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life.

Participants “will meet and talk with the keepers of history,” says Simon, whose undergraduate course “Basic Issues in American Democracy” includes a focus on civil rights issues. “This trip helps to achieve what I call immersion – students will see and experience what they’ve been studying in my class.”

The 8-day journey includes stops in Little Rock, Arkansas; Selma (for the Bloody Sunday anniversary), Montgomery, Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Alabama; Oxford, Mississippi; and Memphis, Tennessee.

Watch the SMU Forum for more news about the 2009 Pilgrimage. (Above, 2008 pilgrimage participants visit Brown Chapel AME Church where the Selma-to-Montgomery marches were staged and to which marchers retreated on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. Coach Lawrence Huggins, a teacher at the time of the marches, is standing in front of the group.)

Learn more about the Civil Rights Pilgrimage at the SMU Chaplain’s website