Hidden History: Youngstown civil rights leader ‘stood, even if he had to stand alone’

Rev. Kenneth Simon, pastor of New Bethel Church in Youngstown, turned his father's old office into a memorial to his legacy

Rev. Lonnie Simon is remembered as a civil rights leader in Youngstown.


YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Even though Ohio is a northern state, many blacks in Youngstown said they consistently felt the heat of segregation during the Civil Rights Movement. It encouraged many Valley men and women to step up to the plate and fight for civil rights.

Reverend Kenneth Simon is the pastor at New Bethel Church on Hillman Street in Youngstown. His father, Lonnie Simon, was the former pastor for 33 years. He passed in 2012.

Rev. Simon turned his father’s old office into a memorial to his incredible legacy of social justice. The reverend said one of his dad’s most cherished moments was marching with Dr. Martin Luther King.

“He was one of the chant leaders, section leaders, of the march in Montgomery, Alabama.”

On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was shot and killed on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Protests broke out across the country and Youngstown was no exception.

“There was still unrest in this community. It didn’t just last one day,” Simon said.

Dr. Ron Daniels, Lonnie Simon’s friend, was extremely active in the Civil Rights Movement in Youngstown. In the 60s, Daniels headed a Black Nationalist group called Freedom Incorporated.

After King’s death, they told the black citizens of Youngstown to redirect their anger into something positive.

“What occurred, therefore, was a massive march for justice and civil rights,” Daniels said.

Accounts of what happened next are highly disputed.

What we do know is that violence followed the march. Eighty people were arrested, shots were fired, and the National Guard was called in. They enforced a curfew and patrolled the streets of Youngstown for three days.

It’s unclear whether police or protesters incited the violence. What is clear is faith leaders were key to restoring peace.

“The fact that Reverend Lonnie Simon and other faith leaders were aware of the approach that we were taking really actually saved the day,” Daniels said.

Lonnie Simon’s advocacy work came at a price for him and his family.

“Threatening calls, threatening my father’s life, threatening my family and then…the bomb,” Kenneth Simon remembered.

In October of 1972, a car bomb exploded outside of the Simons’ house. The suspects were never found.

Reverend Simon said despite these threats, his father remained steadfast in his advocacy work.

“He fought for what he believed in and if he believed in a cause, he stood, even if he had to stand alone.”

Dr. Daniels said Lonnie Simon’s example of courageousness is needed in our increasingly divided America. He said in the face of such turmoil, organizing and educating are the only things that will move us forward.

“No matter how uncomfortable it is, we have to have these conversations about race because if you don’t have those conversations, the promise of America in terms of a more perfect union will never be realized.”

The newest addition to New Bethel Church is the sanctuary. Rev. Simon said for him, this space represents a renewed dedication to his father’s lifelong mission of equality and unity.

“It’s just an extention of his legacy. The work that he’s done for the community,” he said. “We’re trying to do that still, today.”

For more stories in honor of Black History Month, check out our special section on WKBN.com.

Also, join Mandy Noell and Cameron O’Brien for a WKBN 27 First News special presentation — The Valley’s Hidden History. The 30-minute show will air Saturday at 10:30 p.m. on FOX Youngstown.

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