In 1965, the City College of New York (CCNY) student government received a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – one of many he sent to allies around the country – urging that if they shared his vision and commitment to equality and racial justice, they join him for a “peaceful, nonviolent march for freedom’’ from Selma to Montgomery.
I was vice president and my friend John Zippert was student government president.
Understandably, our parents were terrified about our joining Dr. King in Selma. The month before, an Alabama state trooper shot and killed civil rights demonstrator Jimmie Lee Jackson, and a few weeks later thugs killed James Reeb, a Boston Unitarian minister, on the streets of Selma.
Two years earlier, three young men, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman (a student at another college of the City University) were murdered in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer campaign to assist Blacks in registering to vote. John Zippert’s mother knew the agony of Andrew Goodman’s mother; both mothers were members of the same chapter of Hadassah, a Jewish women’s organization.
Then, on March 6, 1965, the images “Bloody Sunday” were sent around the world. Alabama state troopers brutally turned their horses, tear gas and clubs on civil rights demonstrators who attempted to march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery to demand that the federal government prevent Alabama and other states of the Old Confederacy from denying Black people the right to vote.
Without the vote, Blacks had no voice in determining the quality of their children’s schools, municipal services or a way to address police abuse.
On the bus
After Dr. King turned around a second march to avoid violating a federal injunction, he urged allies across the country to join him. Despite our families’ fears of violence, John, another friend from Hunter College, and I boarded the bus for Selma.
With student-government “expertise,” I was assigned to work the mimeograph machine in the basement of Brown Chapel under the direction of Dr. King’s aide, Rev. Andrew Young. We attended rallies at the church, inspired by the words of Dr. King that Alabama and the nation had a “date with destiny.”
The 54-mile march began on Sunday, March 21. Under the terms of U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson’s order, a chosen group of 300 marchers (priests, nuns, rabbis and students – Black and White – led by Dr. King) crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River headed to Montgomery. John and I, and others, were later bused to catch up with the demonstrators.
We spent nights sleeping on school gymnasium floors. Along Route 80, we supported each other singing the anthems of the civil rights movement.
But the tone changed once we reached Montgomery. As we marched through the streets toward the Alabama state capitol, I recall the tense silence. Crowds lined the streets, often cursing, sometimes spitting at the marchers.
We heard Dr. King’s stirring words delivered as the Alabama state flag, which evoked the battle flag of that state’s Confederate infantry, flew over the Capitol dome: “The season of suffering will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
Later that day, a car with four Klansmen overtook the vehicle driven by Viola Liuzzo, a volunteer who was ferrying a civil rights marcher back to Selma. Shots were fired, and the Detroit mother of five young children was hit twice in the face and killed.
With the nation outraged by the violence of Bloody Sunday and the murders of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. It outlawed poll taxes, literacy tests, inaccessible registration procedures and other roadblocks erected by the White power structure and brutally enforced by local police and the Klan to prevent Blacks from voting.
John and I returned home from Selma to go our separate paths. Almost immediately, though, John returned to the South – where he still lives and works.
Through the Congress of Racial Equality, John was assigned to help develop farmer’s cooperatives in Opelousas, in southwest Louisiana.
At a meeting he organized in the spring of 1966 to plan a sweet potato marketing co-operative, John met and fell in love with Carol Prejean. Born and raised in Lafayette, she was also working with Black farmers and sharecroppers to create a farmer’s cooperative to make sure that they would get a fair price for their crops.
John is White and Carol Prejean is Black, and they fell in love during a period when their relationship was not legally permitted. In 1967, Louisiana’s anti-miscegenation law barred them from being issued a marriage license.
With help from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and others, John and Carol filed suit in U.S. District Court challenging the constitutionality of the state’s anti-miscegenation law. Their case was stayed until the U. S. Supreme Court decided Loving v. Virginia, the historic ACLU case involving a White man and his mixed-race wife who committed the crime of getting married. The decision in the Loving case was issued in June 1967. It barred Virginia and other states from making interracial marriage a crime.
The Zipperts became the first interracial couple to wed in Louisiana. They have three children, and 11 grandchildren.
John’s life work has been dedicated to ensuring the survivability of Black-owned family farms. He is a founder of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which now serves more than 70 cooperatives and 20,000 families across ten Southern states. On Dec. 5, 2012, John was inducted into the Tuskegee University’s George Washington Carver Hall of Fame.
Carol earned a Ph.D. in education and served her community as a college teacher, college president and member of a county school board. The Zipperts now live in Alabama and also publish a community newspaper, the Greene County Democrat.
I returned from Selma to graduate from The City College. I later received a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, and, for several years, taught at DePauw University in Indiana. Ten years after the Selma march for voting rights, with King’s words still resonating and inspiring me, I was appointed executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, and served from 1974 to 1997.
During that time, I helped uncover evidence of the FBI’s complicity, under J. Edgar Hoover, in some of the worst violence inflicted on those who went to the South to work for civil rights and voting rights.
We learned that one of the four men in the car from which the shots were fired killing Viola Liuzzo was the FBI’s chief paid informant in the Klan, Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr. We also found documents revealing that, four years earlier, the same informant told the FBI that the Birmingham police would allow the Klan to attack the first Freedom Riders when they arrived on May 14, 1961. The FBI stood by and let it happen.
The ACLU brought a lawsuit on behalf of Viola Liuzzo’s five children. Ultimately, a federal judge cited insufficient evidence to determine whether the shots that killed their mother were fired by Klansman or the FBI’s informant. A different federal judge found that the FBI, armed with advance knowledge of the attack on the Freedom Riders and choosing to let it happen, was responsible for the brutal assault.
Now in Florida
Since 1997, I have served as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Florida affiliate.
Protecting the right to vote, especially since the botched election in 2000, has been a major focus of my work.
It has been 50 years since Dr. King led the march from Selma to Montgomery. Those in power no longer use charging horses, clubs, tear gas and mobs to deny people the right to vote. Manipulation of voting procedures, onerous voter identification requirements, computer purges and voting bans against those with past felony convictions are today’s weapons.
I had not seen the Zipperts for 45 years – until we returned to Selma in March for the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the historic march for the Voting Rights Act.
The reunion in Selma was moving and bittersweet. The courage of the “foot soldiers” and the determination of civil rights workers who helped to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act were celebrated. But it was hard not to note that the U.S. Supreme Court had ripped out the law’s heart and soul – federal oversight of state and local voting manipulation.
John and I – each in our own way – have worked for racial equality and the right to vote since the days we spent in Selma and walked Highway 80 to Montgomery 50 years ago. But in many ways since then the country seems to have moved backward on racial justice.
The equal legal status of Blacks in America is certainly different now than in the 1960s, but the ugly undertow of racism and racist violence persists. The brutal killing of nine people in an historic Charleston, South Carolina church is reminiscent of the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham church that killed four girls.
Yes, it is decades past due to retire the battle flag of the Old Confederacy to a museum with other artifacts of American history. But we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by a fight over symbols.
Addressing public policies that breed racial inequality in our institutions – in our educational system, in housing, in employment, and especially in America’s criminal justice system – is both more difficult and more urgent than a fight over what to do about the symbols of racial inequality.
Howard Simon is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.