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Howard L. Simon

Tear gas, clubs gone, but rights struggle continues

After Alabama state troopers turned their horses and tear gas on civil rights marchers on March 7, 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.

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 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 before, three young civil rights workers registering black people to vote were brutally murdered in Mississippi. One of them was a student at our university. Despite our families' fears, three of us boarded the bus to Selma.

We helped however we could. With college student government "expertise," I was assigned the mimeograph machine (remember those?) at Brown's Chapel under the Rev. Andrew Young's direction. At evening rallies, King intoned that Alabama and the nation had a "date with destiny."

The march began Sunday, March 21. Led by King, priests, nuns, rabbis and students — black and white together — 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 as we marched toward the Alabama state Capitol, I recall our silence. Crowds cursed and spat at us.

We listened to King's stirring words, that the "season of suffering will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again," delivered beneath the Confederate flag flying over the Capitol dome, higher than the Stars and Stripes.

Later that day, a car with four klansmen overtook the vehicle of 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 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.

Ten years later, with King's words still resonating and inspiring me, I became executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. I worked on two cases involving the FBI's complicity, under J. Edgar Hoover, in violence against civil rights crusaders. 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.

Walter Bergman, a retired professor and a previous director of the Detroit ACLU, and his wife, Frances, were part of the racially integrated team that arrived in Birmingham in 1961 to be viciously beaten by a mob — which included the paid FBI informant. Bergman's beating caused a stroke that paralyzed him for the remaining 40 years of his life.

We also learned that, four years later, the same FBI paid informant was one of four 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 to determine whether the shots that killed their mother were fired by the klan or the FBI informant. Another federal 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 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.

The struggle continues.

Howard L. Simon is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Tear gas, clubs gone, but rights struggle continues 01/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 6:38pm]

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