In Memoriam: Zev Aelony

In Memoriam: Zev Aelony

The following biographical sketch first appeared in the March, 2006, DFL Senate District 60 newsletter. At that the time, Zev had been fighting cancer for at least a year. He died of metastatic colon cancer October 31st, 2009.

Sometimes I think that I know a person and then discover that I don’t have a clue. That happened at the January SD60 Central Committee meeting. We’d had a number of DFL candidates speak to us about their campaigns with questions and answers afterwards.

At the end of the meeting, Zev Aelony, an active long-time member of the district, asked for time to speak to us. Wearing a parka and gloves, his tousled white hair glowing in the fluorescent lights, Zev came forward and faced the audience.

He spoke about our responsibility to carefully evaluate all the candidates and to support those that best represented party ideals, particularly civil rights and the rights of minorities. It was obvious that he spoke from his heart.

He also spoke from experience.

Zev held up a laminated enlargement of a newspaper headline and picture, “This is from the Atlanta Constitution, October 31, 1963. It is the story about the release from jail of the Americus Four. Here’s the picture of the Americus Four and that’s me.” In the picture, Zev was the young man with the dark hair, short beard, and broad toothy grin.

The Americus Four were Civil Rights workers in Georgia. They had been arrested, charged with insurrection against the state of Georgia, and faced the death penalty. While Zev and his three friends faced an uncertain future, the story of their situation started to circulate. In the United States the story was ignored or buried deep inside the newspapers. But in Europe and Africa it had touched a nerve and public concern built. Ultimately, pressure from the international community and a growing awareness of the story in the U.S. forced the Federal Government to lean on the State of Georgia and stop the judicial charade.

Looking at Zev then and today, I knew that I had to learn more about this man that I had taken for granted. We began meeting once at week, in the evening, at Café Tempo to drink coffee and chat about his experiences in the Civil Rights Movement.

Zev’s passion for justice and equality has been a force all of his life. During the late 50’s and early 60’s it pulled him into the furnace of the southern civil rights movement that forged the freedoms we take for granted today. From 1956, when he was a student at the University of Chicago and a host to student activists from Little Rock Central High School until 1965 when the last racist inspired legal charges against him were dropped, Zev was a committed participant in one of our nations greatest struggles.

Recently, Zev wrote about those times and the struggle in an article for Insight News.

“The people I met there were courageous, warm and charming. The young people in the movement were especially inspiring. Beaten down until they could stand it no more, they found the strength to stand up with a dignity and an intelligence that came from the very core of their being. They shared a spirit and depth that rang out in their freedom songs, their mass meetings, and their determination to take the initiative to build a new Americus [Georgia] and a new America, where the promises of the Declaration of Independence would finally be realized by their hard work.

They sought no martyrdom but took every mistreatment as a challenge to achieve something better. They succeeded, not perfectly or totally, with a loss of less than 1000 lives and made greater changes than that were made by the Civil War, which cost 1,000,000 lives.”

Today it is easy to forget what it meant to be a Freedom Rider or to work to register black Americans who, for their entire lives, had been denied the basic right to vote. We forget the conditions in America that black Americans lived in and what the black and white activists committed to the non-violence strategy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. faced daily.

Our conversations have covered both personal and public history. The following are a few of my questions and his comments.

How did life at home shape your view of the world?

“We were always talking about politics and things. Often, father would find a new immigrant wandering around down town or at the train station. Because father could speak 5 languages, he’d start to talk to the newcomer. Eventually, he’d invite them home for dinner and we’d sit around the table and listen to the stories these people had to tell.

We also had relatives scattered out all over the U.S. and the world. There was always someone visiting from someplace else.

Originally my family came from Odessa in the Ukraine. My grandfather Enoch Berezovski had been a partner with another man in a small business there. During the Russian Revolution the business was confiscated and my grandfather arrested, exiled, and put on a train to Siberia. He escaped from the train and walked back to Odessa where my grandmother made him go before a judge and demand that his freedom be returned. It worked and he was acquitted and freed.

My grandmother was even more strong willed than my grandfather, she is a legend in the family.

Do you remember any events that made a lasting impression on you?

“One of the first things that made me start to question the order of things was a picnic at Powder Horn Park. There were children from Europe and the U.S. playing together. Some of the children had numbers tattooed on their arms.

We talked about where we came from and the tattooed children told us about the concentration camps they had been in: the barbed wire and the guards. Some of the American kids started to talk about the camps that they had been in out west. They were Japanese Americans and had been in the detention camps.

I remember listening to these stories and thinking, ‘How can this be? We can’t have camps in the U.S?’  But here were kids my age that had been in them. Later, I talked with my parents and they told me about the internment camps and how the Japanese American families had lost their homes and possessions. This reminded me of my grandfather Enoch and his family loosing their home in Odessa.

It was the start of my questioning how much I could trust what I was being told in school and by the government. I think I was about 10 years old.”

Was there any other events?

“As a high school student, I think I was a senior, I went to hear lectures by an Indian man who was part of the remnant of the Gandhi movement. He had been part of Gandhi’s Ashram in India.

He spoke about the need to act, but the need to act in a way that recognized the humanity of everyone. That there aren’t “good guys” and “bad guys” but there are good actions and bad actions. The question was how do we bring good things to everybody?

At that time, I couldn’t quite deal with it. The fascist regimes in Europe and Japan had been so evil. What could you do?

A few years later, when I was a college student, I was affected by the people that I met on campus; Quakers, Unitarians, people from all types of ethnic groups. What the man had said in the lectures began to make more sense. I was beginning to recognize that violence was not the way regardless of what belief you supported democracy, republicanism, Marxism, Christianity or Judaism.  Violence was simply not the way to promote an ideal.

It was during that time I read about the non-violent resistance to the Nazis. I learned that the non-violent resistance to the Nazis had been affective.  However, the resistance ended as the Allied bombers struck further and further into Germany.

The act of attacking the Germans changed the resisters’ attitudes?

“While doing research, I found a story New York Times, December 7th, 1941; the day of Pearl harbor. It was a Sunday, and through-out Europe, a Pastoral Letter had been read in the churches. The letter had been drawn up by the bishops of Europe, and presented in the city of Fulda. The letter called on the faithful to pray for the victory of the German armies. This letter had been signed by bishops who you would have expected to sign such a document. But it was also signed by bishops who had risked their lives opposing the fascists.

That made me ask the question, Why? “

Yes. Why would people who resisted the Nazis for years, change their minds?

“What if you are the Bishop, here and you step out onto the steps of the Basilica of St. Mary and you see the Twin Cities in flames and your parishioners being burned alive? “

I see your point, 9/11 one thousand times larger. Violence only generates more violence, even when it is claimed as self defence.

What was the South like in 1963?

“It was a dangerous place if you were Black or someone associated with the Civil Rights Movement. Saying the wrong thing could get you beat up, black and white people walking down the street in a friendly way could have horrible things to happen to them.

For instance, our attorney was C.B. King, he was the only black attorney south of Atlanta at that time. We were in jail and a Sheriff’s deputy came in and told us that CB wouldn’t be in to see us that day. We found out later that CB’s brother Slater and his wife, who was pregnant, had been stopped by a Sheriff in another county. The Sheriff had kicked Slater’s wife in the stomach and she was in the hospital. Several weeks later she lost the baby. At that time, no one could prove that the Sheriff kicking her was the cause.

And nothing happened to the Sheriff?

No. The Sheriff accused her of assault, which was typical.

Another example was when I worked with Jimmy Carter’s sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, to set up a reconciliation meeting between the white and Black residents of Americus Georgia.

The place we chose to meet at was a house with a ravine behind it and full of thick growth, like a jungle. If you come up the road approaching this house, there is a sharp curve and just beyond that another sharp turn into the driveway that goes around the house. Nobody could see if you turned in there and you could park behind the house, out of sight. We had to hide what we were doing.

As the meeting was getting started, the hostess asked us if we wanted coffee and cake. If we had all been White or Black this would have been an innocent question, a common courtesy. But in Georgia in 1963, the sharing of a meal or coffee and cake was a crime, not to mention a very emotional social taboo.

The room was quiet for a moment, while everyone considered the implications and then we agreed that coffee and cake was a good idea. The members of the Black and white communities joined together to break one of many laws that was intended to keep them apart.

The way we live today would have totally illegal then.

You recently went back to Americus to see a play about those times. It was written by one of the other Americus 4, John Perdew. After 42 years, what was that like?

“I went back last October to Albany Georgia because the mayor had proclaimed the 14th as ‘John Perdew Day’ and to see John’s play, ‘Insurrection: the Education of a Harvard guy’.

Things have changed. Albany’s population is 2/3 African American and its leadership contains African Americans. The local university Albany State, was historical all Black but now has white students. Needless to say the public schools are integrated. Sporting teams, once all Black or white, are now mixed. The audience at John’s play had white members; they were there to celebrate the end of segregation.

It was a thrilling Saturday night in downtown Albany. Black and white bands played from a stage. There was no tension, just a happy toe tapping crowd, dancing, drinking beer or soda, shopping at the craft booths. There were two or three mixed groups but no one appeared to pay any attention.

A police car stopped at a traffic light. And for a moment I felt myself tense up. I remembered the cattle prods, beatings, and jail. But then the light turned green, the cop smiled and drove on.

It’s not to say Albany is perfect. It’s not, it still has problems but things have changed. I was thrilled to see a candle in the wind.  It is a candle that needs to be tended so that it can grow towards inclusion of all in the community.

You’re not just talking about Albany?

No. There are many disturbing trends in our society. We need to reverse our current national decline. We need to bring us together productively, to approach that community, that agape, sought by Hillel, Christ, the Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

It will take a lot of work.

Thank you Zev.

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