February 21, 1938|
Palo Alto, California
|Died||November 1, 2009
|Alma mater||University of Minnesota|
|Occupation||Owned a small business representing electronic security manufacturers|
|Known for||Organizer of Minnesota civil rights student group (SFI), Freedom Rider, CORE Soul Force member, one of the Americus Four who faced a death penalty for helping citizens legally vote|
|Movement||Civil Rights Movement
|Spouse(s)||Karen Olson Aelony|
|Children||Bjorn, Ephraim, Phill, Jared|
|Parent(s)||Janet and David Aelony|
Zev Aelony (February 21, 1938 – November 1, 2009) was an American activist involved in the Civil Rights Movement. A lifelong Zionist, he practiced peace and nonviolence in his fight for justice. He was an organizer of the civil rights student group Students for Integration, a CORE Soul Force Member, a Freedom Rider, and one of the Americus Four who faced a death penalty for helping citizens legally vote.
Zev Aelony was born on February 21, 1938 in Palo Alto, California to Janet and David Aelony. His father, David Aelony, emigrated from Odessa in the Soviet Union to the United States in 1925, eventually earning his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry at Stanford University, in 1938. Zev Aelony grew up in a secular Jewish household. He was a lifelong Zionist who sought to bring Israel back to its Jewish and Zionist ideals. His roommate on the Kibbutz was a Moslem Arab. From that time, he championed equality for all ethnic groups in the state of Israel.
Aelony grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He studied Russian and played football at University High School, from which he graduated in 1956. Aelony attended the University of Chicago for two years and then lived at the Kibbutz Shoval in Israel for a year. Upon his return to the United States, Aelony spent the summer of 1959 at Koinonia, a Christian community in southwest Georgia. He continued his education at the University of Minnesota, where he graduated in 1961 with a major in political theory and a minor in anthropology. He met his wife, Karen Olson, at the university. They were married for 43 years, until Aelony’s death in 2009. They had four sons together: Bjorn, Ephraim, Phil, and Jared.
To support his family, Aelony and his wife owned a small business selling security products for commercial buildings. As a matter of principle, they did not sell any equipment designed to injure people, such as guns or knives. Aelony became an advocate for civil rights and social justice beginning in his teen years. From his earliest years he was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and non-violent resistance to injustice. At the University of Minnesota, he helped found Students for Integration, a group dedicated to gaining housing and employment for black and minority students. Aelony was arrested several times for testing the ban on segregated interstate travel in the Deep South as a Freedom Rider. He was famously arrested and served time on death row in Americus, Georgia, for attempting to register black voters.
While there, he read an editorial about the communal Christian settlement Koinonia in Georgia which was founded by Clarence Jordan in 1942. At the time, Koinonia Farm gained notoriety as a target of racial bigotry, and was even bombed. Aelony spent the summer of 1959 in Koinonia working with and learning about the people there, who impressed him. Aelony was a lifelong Zionist with family in Israel.
In addition to his native English language, he spoke Hebrew, German, and Russian. His German skills were put to the test in 1963 when the European press descended on the CORE workers, many of whom did not speak English. His explanation to the press in German of what they were trying to accomplish was published widely in Europe and contributed to the pressure on Washington to uphold the supreme court ruling against discrimination in public transportation in interstate commerce.
Aelony's father, David, was an immigrant and was involved in the opposition to the rise of Nazism in Germany, where he had relatives. David Aelony spoke fluently in English, German, Hebrew, Yiddish, and French, and also knew parts of other Slavic and Germanic languages as well as Spanish and Italian. David Aelony began welcoming refugees into his home when he met them on the streets.
One of the turning points in Zev Aelony's life occurred around the age of 18, when his family was invited to a Minneapolis picnic because of his father's work with the refugees. Jewish refugees from Europe and Japanese-Americans who had been in the detention camps out west attended the picnic. Zev Aelony was shocked to meet kids who came out of concentration camps in the United States, a place where he believed things like that did not occur.
Aelony was not completely naïve about segregation and first became involved in civil rights campaigns in high school. During this time in the mid-1950s, he participated in the distribution of NAACP postcards bearing the slogan "Completely Free by ’63," though to him this goal seemed too distant. The hatred Aelony witnessed towards the Koinonia community for practicing racial equality drove him towards participation in the Civil Rights Movement. In September 1959, he attended a ten-day CORE training seminar in Miami, Florida. The seminar focused on nonviolence training and was attended by many people involved in the Freedom Rides, including Patricia Stephens Due and her sister Priscilla Stevens. The seminar was held at the Sir John Motel, one of the few places in Miami that allowed blacks and whites to stay together. The nonviolence training consisted of techniques in organizing and training, and also emphasized the need to understand the people who were against integration. Aelony came to believe that it was important to understand why people do things rather than just dividing them into categories of good and bad.
When Aelony arrived at the University of Minnesota, he met some of the few students of color and discovered that only a small number were from the local communities, since most local blacks chose to attend black colleges and universities in the South. He also found that other minority students were having trouble obtaining local housing and employment in Minneapolis. Aelony worked with a group of students to help find housing for Persian students. This population had difficulty securing housing because it was rumored that they rubbed their skin with olive oil, which ruined the bedding. If the minority students were told an apartment complex was full, white students would go ask for a room there to test the fairness of the renters. The students would then talk to the renters, who were often embarrassed and would agree to rent to the minority students.
Out of this work emerged a student group at the university called Students for Integration (SFI), which Aelony helped found. This group continued to fight for fair housing and fair employment by supporting legislation at the state level. The legislation that passed, which was introduced by a new young legislator, Don Fraser, helped open up housing and job opportunities for minorities.
Meanwhile, the sit-in movement, which encouraged local student activism, began to spread throughout the nation, and Students for Integration organized support at the university. In the summer of 1961, there was a call for more Freedom Riders to help demonstrate the rights of all Americans to equal accommodation on public transportation as the law required.
Zev Aelony and five others, including Claire O’Conner, Gene Uphoff, Dave Martin, Marv Davidoff, and Bob Baum, set off on a bus journey with New Orleans as the final destination. The first part of the ride was uneventful, and the group did not experience any violence. They stopped in Nashville to stay at the Freedom House with Diane Nash and Rodney Powell, and they joined in a picket of a grocery store there. The Freedom Riders continued on their journey and were arrested when they arrived in Jackson, Mississippi. Police Chief Captain Ray met them inside the door of the black waiting room, and they were taken to the Jackson City Jail. After a couple of nights they were transferred to the Hines County Jail, and when that facility filled up they were moved to Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm. While there, Aelony participated in a hunger strike with several others, and he was isolated for a period of time for writing "you’ll reap what you sow" on the back wall with a spoon. In retrospect, the federal government seemed slow to respond to the request from civil rights workers to enforce the interstate commerce clause decision by the supreme court, both for political reasons, for caution, and until international pressures arose to demonstrate US commitment to democracy, freedom of travel, and equality under the law. Aelony's interview in May 1963 in German with a West German filmmaker played extensively on TV in Europe, contributing immediately to the political pressure from Europe.
In 1959, Aelony applied for Conscientious Objector status from his draft board, and he was classified as 4F, politically unacceptable. Aelony chose his own service to his country in 1962 by volunteering to become a member of the new Soul Force organized by the Congress of Racial Equality. The Soul Force was a group of full-time nonviolent civil rights workers.
Aelony spent his first months on the Soul Force training and working in the national office until he was dispatched to Chicago to work with Midwest CORE groups and other civil rights groups. He collaborated with SNCC and the NAACP, along with local groups, to help send food and necessities to people in Mississippi and other areas of the Deep South. His efforts extended to northern Minnesota and North Dakota, where drunken white men were harassing black soldiers and athletes.
In the spring of 1963, Aelony became a part of the Journey of Reconciliation. The Journey of Reconciliation began when William Moore, a white Mississippian postman whose wife was black, set off on foot from Chattanooga, Tennessee to deliver a letter to Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett asking him to accept integration. When Moore was shot dead, five members of CORE and five members of SNCC responded to his wife's request that the journey be carried on. The group, an equal mix of black and white males, was arrested for "walking into the state of Alabama in a manner designed to incite a breach of the peace". They were taken to the local county jail, where the sheriff sued for their release. This occurred again in another county, and the group was moved to Kilby State Prison. Eventually they were tried, convicted, and released on bail. Fred Gray, the only black attorney in the state at the time, represented the group members in court. Later the charges were vacated.
In 1963, Aelony was asked to go back to Sumter County, Georgia, where Koinonia is located, to the town of Americus to assist with a voter registration drive there. Aelony worked with SNCC and the local Sumter County Movement to help blacks register to vote. He taught protest standards to picketers at a local restaurant, and he also showed the group’s photographer how to take pictures that would be useful in court. He performed similar activities in Ocala, Florida. When Aelony took a sample picture, a deputy arrived and asked him to stop photographing. Aelony said "it's a free country", and was immediately arrested. He was taken to jail in Ocala. Officers told the inmates he was a Freedom Rider, and left him unattended in the jail "bullpen", where he was beaten unconscious and kicked until a woman visitor called attention to the abuse. Aelony was eventually released after the intervention of Minnesota's governor, who was attending the Governor's Conference in Miami, and he returned to Americus. The arrests in Americus continued to take place; hundreds of people who were a part of the voting rights drive were taken to a camp outside of town.
The leaders of the Sumter County Movement were trying to decide what to do next, and a young activist chose to lead a group to pray in front of city hall. Aelony attended the march as a non-participant observer and was arrested on a charge of insurrection against the state of Georgia. This charge carried the death penalty under Georgia’s 1871 Anti-Treason Act. Three other CORE fieldworkers, Ralph Allen, Don Harris, and John Perdew, were arrested in Americus as well. With Aelony, this group became known as the Americus Four while they spent time on death row. Their arrest originally went unnoticed in the United States, but attracted attention in Europe and Africa. As public concern grew, awareness spread within the United States and eventually put pressure on the federal government to attend to the arrests in Georgia. The Americus Four were ultimately exonerated. Shortly afterward, he suffered a myocardial infarction and was hospitalized at Grady Hospital, by a local black physician who cared for the CORE workers. Thus, Aelony integrated the black ward at Grady Hospital. He was examined there by the famous academic cardiologist, Professor Willis Hurst, who felt his heart attack was related to his beating in Ocala, Florida. He was then advised to terminate his dangerous protest work in the deep South.
Aelony continued to be politically active in his hometown of Minneapolis throughout his life. He worked on the political campaign of Keith Ellison, a Muslim who ran for Congress on a peace platform. In 2006, Ellison became the first Muslim elected to Congress; he was also the first African-American from Minnesota to be elected to the House of Representatives.
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