American Civil Liberties executive director Howard Simon took part in the last century's most significant freedom march with Dr. Martin Luther King. Then he was part of lawsuits that indicated our own government might have played a role in one of the civil rights movement's most heinous killings, Here he remembers those events and King, whose holiday is Monday.
After Alabama State Troopers turned their horses and tear gas on civil rights marchers on March 6, 1965 ("Bloody Sunday"), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. telegrammed allies across the country urging that they join him for a 54-mile march from Selma to the State Capitol in Montgomery to demand that Congress remove barriers to the right to vote. Dr. King's telegram found its way to the City College of New York Student Government, where I served as vice-president. Until then, our civil rights work pretty much had been limited to the Harlem neighborhoods surrounding our campus.
Violence persisted around Selma. A state trooper had shot and killed a civil rights demonstrator, and a Unitarian minister from Boston was beaten to death. Two years prior, three young civil rights workers registering black people to vote were brutally murdered in Mississippi. One was a student at our university. Despite our families' fears, three of us boarded the bus to Selma.
Photo by Jacob Katel
We helped however we could. With college student government "expertise," I was assigned the mimeograph machine (remember those?) at Brown's Chapel under Rev. Andrew Young's direction. (Young would later become mayor of Atlanta, a Congressman, and a U.N. ambassador.) At evening rallies, Dr. King moved us with stirring words that Alabama and the nation had a "date with destiny."
My memories from nearly 46 years ago are the following: I remember being electrified by the church rallies, by Dr. King's words, and by the appreciative audience response. It seemed the walls were shaking and the rafters were moving. He moved people to goose bumps.
Before the march began, we won a court order requiring Alabama law enforcement to make room for us. Then on March 21, we set out for the state capitol. Led by Dr. King- black and white together - priests, nuns, rabbis, students and ordinary folks crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River headed to Montgomery. After several nights sleeping in churches and on school gymnasium floors, we reached the streets of the city.
Along Route 80, we gave each other courage, singing the anthems of the Civil Rights Movement. But once we entered the city limits, there was an almost eerie and, honestly, a frightening silence. I recall marching through streets lined with hostile people cursing, and occasionally spitting at us.
At the capitol, we listened to Dr. King's stirring words, that the "season of suffering will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again." It was delivered beneath the Confederate stars and bars,which flew over the capitol dome above the Stars and Stripes. That was a strange sight for a college kid from New York, a powerful experience that I will never forget.
Later that day, a car with four Klansmen overtook a vehicle with Michigan plates driven by Viola Liuzzo, who was ferrying civil rights workers back to Selma. Shots were fired, and the Detroit mother of five young children was hit twice in the face and killed.
Viola Liuzzo's murder so outraged the nation that, as a memorial, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law was designed to outlaw poll taxes, literacy tests, inaccessible registration procedures and other roadblocks erected by the power structure and brutally enforced by local police and the Ku Klux Klan to prevent black people from voting. Without the vote, black people had no voice in determining the quality of their children's schools, the provision of municipal services, or addressing police brutality.
I knew that the work in Selma was worth the effort, and the terrible price. The Voting Rights Act changed the south, and it changed the country.
Photo by Jacob Katel
Ten years later, with Dr. King's words still resonating and inspiring me, I became executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. My work with the ACLU included work on two cases that addressed the FBI's complicity, under J. Edgar Hoover, in violence against civil rights workers. We uncovered documents revealing that, three weeks before the first Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham on May 14, 1961, the FBI was told that the Birmingham Police would allow the Klan 15 minutes to attack the Freedom Riders. The notice came from the FBI's chief paid informant in the Klan, Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr.
How I remember that day! We found that document in a box of papers received from the FBI through the Freedom of Information Act, and with the help of a U.S. Senator from Michigan.
My friends, Dr. Walter Bergman, a retired professor and a previous director of the Detroit ACLU, and his wife Francis were part of the racially integrated team of Freedom Riders who arrived in Birmingham in 1961 only to be viciously beaten by a mob that included the FBI's chief paid informant in the Klan. Dr. Bergman's beating caused a stroke that paralyzed him for the remaining forty years of his life.
Four years later, we learned that the same FBI paid informant was one of four people in the car from which the fatal shots were fired, killing Viola Liuzzo.
The ACLU sued the FBI on behalf of the Bergmans and the Liuzzo family. One federal judge ruled against the Liuzzos, finding insufficient evidence the shots that killed their mother were fired by the Klan or the FBI informant. (Think of that: the court was not able to determine whether the Detroit mother was killed by the Klan or the FBI's paid agent!)
Another judge found that the FBI, armed with advance knowledge of the attack but choosing to let it happen, was responsible for the assault on the Freedom Riders.
More than 40 years have passed since Dr. King led the Voting Rights March. Those in power no longer use charging horses, tear gas and mobs to deny people the right to vote. Instead, Jim Crow era voting bans against former felons and computer purges by faceless bureaucrats are their weapons of choice.
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Despite these continuing barriers, Dr. King would be sad to know that, after all that people of both races sacrificed for, only about half of those eligible to vote do so.
The struggle continues.