Zev Aelony, 71, a champion for civil rights

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2009 - 9:57 PM

As one of the "Americus Four," he was jailed for trying to register black voters in south Georgia in the 1960s.

Zev Aelony

"Tikkun olam" is a Hebrew phrase that means to fix or mend a broken world. For Zev Aelony, doing so was simply a way of life.

From his late teens until his final days, Aelony was a fierce advocate for civil rights and social justice who might best be remembered as one of the Americus Four. In 1963, he and three other men were arrested in Americus, Ga., on charges of insurrection and attempting to register black voters, a charge that carried the death penalty under Georgia's 1871 Anti-Treason Act. The charges against the four eventually were dropped.

It wasn't the only time Aelony was detained while advocating for civil rights. He was arrested several times in the early 1960s as a "Freedom Rider" on buses from the North into the South to test the Interstate Commerce Commission's ban on segregation on interstate public transportation. He was beaten and jailed in Alabama when he was part of a group that protested the murder of a postal worker who was trying to deliver a letter to then Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett.

Aelony died of metastatic colon cancer Sunday at his home in Minneapolis. He was 71.

"He wanted to fight injustice and inequality and believed that everybody should have a voice and that everybody should be able to vote," said his wife, Karen.

Born in Palo Alto, Calif., Aelony grew up in Minneapolis. In 1956, he graduated from the former University High School, where he studied Russian and played football. He spent two years at University of Chicago, then a year at the Kibbutz Shoval in Israel.

He returned to the United States and spent the summer of 1959 at Koinonia, a Christian community in southwest Georgia that had been the target of racial bigotry and violence for embracing racial equality. He also attended a training session on nonviolence put on by the Congress of Racial Equality. Those experiences pushed him to the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, said his son Jared, of Detroit Lakes, Minn. "He said and he lived what he believed," Jared said.

Aelony was in jail in Mississippi in 1960 when he graduated from the University of Minnesota, where he majored in political theory and minored in anthropology. At the U, he helped found Students for Integration, a group dedicated to helping black students secure housing and employment. From there, it was on to the Deep South as a Freedom Rider and into the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, his family said.

"He was very aware of the risks, but he was brave and innovative," said John Perdew, one of the Americus Four jailed with Aelony. "He never stopped raising issues and pointing things out. He never stopped pressing for justice."

Aelony also was known as a "softspoken, peaceful and nice guy who made this a better country," said longtime friend Harold Londer of Golden Valley.

He sold security products to commercial buildings to provide for his family. In his spare time he was active in the DFL Party, his wife said. He was fluent in Hebrew and studied German and Russian. He liked to read and enjoyed taking the family dog for walks around Lake Harriet where he conversed with his many friends, his family said.

In addition to his wife of 43 years and his son, Aelony is survived by three other sons, Bjorn of Lake Crystal, Minn., Ephraim of Minneapolis and Phill of Denton, Texas; a brother, Yossef of Palos Verdes, Calif., and a grandchild.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Nov. 14 at First Unitarian Society, 900 Mount Curve Av., Minneapolis. A reception will follow.

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