Howard Simon remembers when he was vice president of student government at the City College of New York and the organization received a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It was 1965 and the letter urged students to join the civil rights leader and activists for a march from Selma to Montgomery, Al. Simon and his friend, John Zippert, answered the call.
Now more than 50 years later, Simon is ready to retire from the American Civil Liberties Union and can look back on a legacy filled with some of the most important civil rights movements in a half a century.
At 75, he is the longest-serving state director of the ACLU, first joining the organization in 1974 in Michigan as the state executive director, then moving in 1997 to Florida. Even with two decades spent in the Sunshine State, Simon has not lost his New York accent.
“I’ve been lucky to have been given the reins of leadership of one of the most important civil rights organizations in the country,” Simon said.
“Not everyone gets an opportunity to wake up in the morning and read a newspaper and see the latest outrage and have a job where they can go into the office and talk to staff members and figure out what they’re going to do about it.”
Over the decades, Simon has tackled First Amendment rights, voting rights and LGBTQ rights. In the mid-2000s, the organization was involved in the legal battle in Florida over Terri Schiavo’s right-to-die case that captured the agony over who has the authority to allow someone to die.
“I look back and I see: It was an intense, emotional battle…we were essentially the legal team fighting the intrusion of the state and federal government,” Simon said. “That was prolonged and intense and very, very emotional.”
Simon has decades worth of memories but pauses to reflect before he answers a question about his long career.
“I have to say when I first started, I don’t think I would have hired myself,” he said. “I taught college, which meant that I sat in a college teacher’s office and wrote out lectures and went to class and advised students…I never managed a staff, I had never worked for a board of directors, I had never had to raise money to sustain a civil rights organization and put it on a trajectory of growth. I was a young college teacher who was moved by the power of big ideas, but I didn’t really have the experience to be given real, significant responsibility of managing a state ACLU affiliate.”
But in the 1970s, the Michigan affiliate took a chance on the young college teacher and he grew into the job.
“I’m grateful for the people back in the ‘70s who took a chance on me and I think I flourished, and you blink, and the years go by and I have a career,” Simon said. “I’m the longest-serving state director in the history and perhaps the longest-serving member of the staff in the ACLU.”
Simon will postpone his retirement until after the Nov. 6 general election. In the meantime, he’s throwing his weight behind getting Constitutional Amendment 4 – immediate restoration of felons’ voting rights (except those convicted of homicide or sexual offenses) – passed.
“Whatever we end up doing and achieving, there is yet another problem with voting around the corner,” Simon said. “My point is that…protecting the right to vote and to have your vote count in Florida seems like a never-ending battle.”
To pass, the amendment needs 60 percent of voters to support it.
Witness the revolution
Simon went to Alabama in 1965 but did not walk in the march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma. Simon, because he was a member of student government, worked mimeograph machines in the basement of Brown Chapel helping the Rev. Andrew Young, Dr. King’s aide.
Simon and his friend John Zippert – who was president of the student government at the City College of New York – were later bussed to catch up with the chosen 300 demonstrators who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward Montgomery, Al.
They witnessed Dr. King’s address at the Alabama Capitol.
The moment may have permanently influenced Simon’s young career, or perhaps he was just destined to fight for civil rights. Either way, coincidence played a large role in Simon’s life: Later that same day, Simon said four Klansmen killed a volunteer taking marchers back to Selma. Her name was Viola Liuzzo and outrage over her death prompted President Lyndon Johnson to make the Voting Rights Act a memorial, he said.
Ten years later, Simon would work with Liuzzo’s five children to prosecute one of the four men- an FBI agent – in the car that killed Liuzzo.
It was a “different era,” Simon recalled, and when he took over as the director of the Michigan ACLU, they “had what were called newspapers which reported the latest outrage.”
“I’m being a little facetious – we would receive calls and people would leak things and people would bring things to the ACLU,” he said.
It’s not too different now, but Simons said the Internet and social media have changed how much immediate and national attention an event will get, but the ACLU’s role has generally remained the same.
In recent years, though, the organization has shouldered some blame for appearing too partisan, but Simon said the ACLU remains as committed as ever to its nonpartisan reputation.
“…Our mission is to defend civil rights and civil liberties and using lawyers and going to court is only one tactic that we have to do that,” Simon said “Sometimes it’s communications, and sometimes it’s in the political arena by urging people to vote their values, by looking at candidates to see who supports civil liberties and who doesn’t, by educating voters on issues, by bringing issues to the ballot. As the courts are becoming less and less friendly to the protection of civil rights and civil liberties, we have to try to protect them in the public.”
It’s a difficult arena to navigate, Simon said, especially given the rise in hate groups and the growing divide between political parties, but he’s seen success throughout the years.
In the 1970s the ACLU of Minnesota filed a lawsuit on behalf of two men seeking a marriage license which Simon said was not taken very seriously – a stark contrast to the attention given to LGBTQ issues now.
“And then the decades go by and finally we ended the ban on (LGBTQ people) adopting in Florida. We protected the rights of gay students in the public schools,” Simon said. “And then lo’ and behold: we were involved with the lawsuit that established the right of same-sex marriage six months before the U.S. Supreme Court declared it to be legal nationwide.”
Simon said the ACLU is trying to figure out how to “explore more work in the political arena without becoming partisan.”
Democracy on the ropes
It’s invigorating, he said, to have a job fighting for civil liberties, but democracy is on the ropes.
“This is a dangerous time we’re living in…People need to stand up for it here in the U.S.,” Simon said.
“Ugly racism” and white nationalism have been constant themes in the U.S. for over a century, he said, but they are more visible now, and emboldened.
“If you had asked me two years ago, I would have been depressed that youth activism concern about civil rights and civil liberties really had significantly waned since when I got into this as a college student in the 1960s…But the world has changed in the Trump era,” Simon said. “… This is as much activism and concern I have seen in many, many years and it’s all necessary. Democracy is being severely tested and threatened right now. The independence of the courts and the press – the war on truth and facts.”
He doesn’t know what the future holds for American democracy.
“It is true that the pendulum swings one way or the other, but it would be naïve and foolish and too dangerous to sit and wait for the pendulum to swing back,” he said. “I think people have to get organized and push the pendulum back in the other direction.”
One such pendulum-pushing effort, Simon said, is on the November ballot when Floridians vote on whether to re-enfranchise felons. He said Florida’s current system of removing a person’s right to vote after a felony conviction is a holdover from the 1860s black codes and Jim Crow era.
“(Florida) was looking into the face of the 15th amendment that would go into effect that would bar banning peoples’ right to vote based on race…In some parts of Florida, there were more freed slaves than white people, so they needed to dilute the power to vote,” he said. “That was 150 years ago and now the system of lifetime felon disenfranchisement affects people from all walks of life.”
Currently, an estimated 1.7 million people in Florida who cannot vote, and Simon said about 1.4 million of those people have completed the terms of their sentence. The only way someone convicted of a felony can get back their right to vote in Florida is to apply for clemency from the governor and cabinet members.
Simon’s energy and idealism, even after all these years, comes from a deep commitment to social justice and correcting what he thinks is unfair, he said.
“It comes from a secular Jewish tradition of repairing a broken world,” he said. “And I will be really thrilled if we can help the people of Florida address this blight on our democracy of a system that does not allow people to earn their way back into full citizenship…That is the one piece that will make me really thrilled about a 40-year legacy with the ACLU.”