In 1965, the City College 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 should join him for a “peaceful, nonviolent march for freedom’’ from Selma to Montgomery
I was serving as vice president and my friend John Zippert was student government president.
Understandably, our parents were terrified about our decision to join 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.
Two years earlier, three young men, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman (then a student at Queens College) were brutally 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 were members of the same Hadassah group
Then, on March 6, 1965, the horrible images of the event now commemorated as “Bloody Sunday” were sent around the nation. Alabama State Troopers brutally turned their horses, tear gas and clubs on civil rights demonstrators who attempted to march from Selma to the State Capitol 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 and municipal services or how to address police abuse.
After Dr. King turned around a second march to avoid violating a federal injunction, he urged allies across the country to join him in Alabama. 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 evening rallies at the Church, and were 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 the injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson, a chosen group of about 300 marchers (priests, nuns, rabbis and students — black and white together — led by Dr. King) crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River and 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 by 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 both sides of the streets, often cursing, sometimes spitting at the marchers.
At the State Capitol, a busload of City College students arrived from New York to join us at the rally in time to hear Dr. King’s stirring words delivered beneath the Alabama state flag with its Confederate Stars and Bars flying 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, 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 of 1965. Outlawed were poll taxes, literacy tests, inaccessible registration procedures and other roadblocks that had been erected by the 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, but continuing to work for racial equality and social justice. Almost immediately, John returned to the South — where he still works. Through correspondence courses and credits earned at colleges in southwest Louisiana, John ultimately completed his undergraduate degree from the City College in 1968.
Through the Congress of Racial Equality, John was assigned to help develop farmer’s cooperatives in Opelousas, in southwest Louisiana. At a farmers meeting that John convened in the spring of 1966 to discuss plans for a sweet potato marketing co-operative, he met and fell in love with Carol Prejean. Born and raised in Lafayette, she was working with black farmers and sharecroppers in the Lafayette-Lake Charles area to create a farmer’s cooperative to ensure 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 legal help from the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and others, John and Carol filed suit in U.S. District Court (Zippert vs. Sylvester) challenging the constitutionality of the state’s anti-miscegenation law. Their case was stayed until the U. S. Supreme Court decided Loving v. Virginia involving a white man and his mixed-race wife. The decision in the Loving case was issued in June 1967. It barred Virginia and other states, including Louisiana, from making interracial marriage a crime.
The Zipperts became the first interracial couple to wed in Louisiana.
They now publish a community newspaper, remain education advocates and strong supporters of economic and rural development for farmers and education.
On Dec. 5, 2012, as an acknowledgment of his service to disadvantaged communities, John was inducted into the Tuskegee University’s George Washington Carver Hall of Fame.
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, serving from 1974 to 1997.
Since 1997, I have been serving as the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Florida affiliate. Since the botched election in 2000, protecting the right to vote 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 ID requirements, computer purges and voting bans against former felons 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 that helped to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act were celebrated. But it was hard not to take note of the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court had ripped out the law’s heart and soul — federal oversight of voting procedures enacted by state and local officials.
And it was hard also not to take notice of how, in many ways over the last few decades, the country has moved backward on racial justice — particularly in America’s criminal justice system and especially as a consequence of the addiction to policies leading to incarceration.
John and I — each in our own way — have worked for racial equality, justice and the right to vote since the days we spent in Selma and walked Highway 80 to Montgomery 50 years ago.
But it was the instilling of a social justice conscience during our years at The City College that propelled us to Selma in 1965 and changed the course of our lives.
Simon is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.