Freedom's fighter

The new director of Florida's American Civil Liberties Union knows people view him as an agitator -- unitl they need his help

Howard Simon is pragmatic about how Floridians view the American Civil Liberties Union.

"People come here from all over the country, and they've brought their perception with them -- more so than things they have learned about the ACLU here," says the man who served Michigan's ACLU as its executive director before moving south last fall to take a similar job in Florida.

"The general perception is that we're annoying. Mostly, we irritate and confuse. People read about what the ACLU does and say, ‘For God's sake, why do they have to get into that issue?'"

"It changes when they become victims," he says. "When they've had their civil liberties violated, they come knocking at the door. Nothing changes one's view so quickly as when one's rights are violated; suddenly people come to understand what civil liberties are all about."

As executive director of Michigan's ACLU for 23 years, Simon led that organization to remarkable civil rights victories. For example, a residents-only park ordinance was toppled as discriminatory; Freedom of Information, Open Meetings and Polygraph Protection acts all became law; drug tests of citizens without probable cause became history; and efforts to interfere with women's reproductive rights were foiled.

So, who is this man? What does he see down Florida's litigious road? And what fuels his watch over citizens' rights decade after decade?

Howard Simon is no hot-house hybrid, no pampered Ivy Leaguer who was sired social galaxies away from Everyman. He was born in the South Bronx on a steamy August day in 1943. His mother was a housepainter's daughter; his father was a jack-of-several-trades before settling to own and operate a taxi company. Simon blames his own reputation as a harrowing driver on the fact that he learned his skills in a cab: "I was always told that the purpose of driving in New York City is to fill up empty spaces."

His early years were spent literally in the shadow of Yankee Stadium; his first memories are of ballpark sounds and sitting in the bleachers for night games, thanks to a babysitter aunt.

He also remembers "a family of cogitators, readers and talkers."

"We visited my grandparents every Sunday, and their television was always tuned to the Sunday morning public-affairs program. They were avid readers of newspapers and magazines, and I picked up their interests. An uncle who was a junior-high history teacher and other relatives who were teachers acquainted me with many things; I was introduced to public affairs at a very, very young age." He adds, "You really do benefit when you're the only child in a family of older persons. ... I was lucky to be the first grandchild."

Simon received his undergraduate degree from New York City College, located deep in Harlem, where he created his own major -- combining history, philosophy and political science. And there, in the early days of the civil rights movement, his political activism flowered. A Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Minnesota followed. He is not now, nor has he ever been, a lawyer.

"I'm not sure that I've changed very much since the days I first entered college, in that I was very taken with the potency of a powerful idea to move people and to actually change history," he says. "I still am."

It's been less than a year since Simon received a call from Robyn Blumner, who led the Florida ACLU as executive director for eight years, asking if he'd be interested in her job.

"I couldn't imagine a better choice," says Blumner, now an editorial columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. "I've always been impressed by his leadership and looked to him for advice and direction in my career; I was thrilled to have him interested in the job."

Says Simon: "It was flattering, especially since we differ on some issues, like affirmative action. She's since written that she is out of the closet as an anti-affirmative action liberal in a sea of affirmative action."

Simon believes deeply in affirmative action. Like California, Michigan was a target for those who would abolish it. We were a major force in its defense. Take Detroit, a city where a majority of residents are African- American and the police department was all white; if there is a success story for affirmative action anywhere in the world, it's there.

After 23 years of fighting such battles in Michigan, uprooting wasn't easy. But with aging parents and other family members now living in Florida, there was a personal, as well as professional, impetus. How does his new venue differ from the one he left?

In Florida, the ACLU has 10,000 members, compared to 8,000 in Michigan. Also, unlike the situation he first encountered up north, there is no debt. "Thanks to Robyn," he says, "I'm inheriting a very strong program."

He's also inheriting Florida's death penalty. Although such cases are not handled by the ACLU -- the state actually handles all those appeals -- Simon opposes capital punishment.

"Michigan was the first jurisdiction anywhere in the English- speaking world to prohibit the death penalty, while still a territory. It was abolished after a horrible incident when an innocent person was executed. I'm afraid Florida, to the extent there's such public support for the death penalty, has no prospect soon for ending it -- not until the public comes face-to-face with an assembly-line of executions, or examples of people who are wrongly executed."

That aside, threats to civil liberties tend to be the same regardless of state borders, he says.

"So many issues are not localized any more -- efforts to destroy the public-school system and divert monies to private and parochial schools; efforts to impose the majority's religious practices in public schools; efforts to end a woman's right to choose. Those kinds of battles take shape from community to community, state to state, fueled by some kind of right-wing think tank out of Washington, D.C. We see the same language time after time."

He mentions a case the ACLU recently filed against a public school curriculum in Lee County that teaches the New Testament as history. A federal judge has since issued a preliminary injunction to halt the instruction, which was developed by a North Carolina operation affiliated with the religious right wing. Now the school board is deciding what to do.

Yet in the same court order, the judge allowed an Old Testament history course to be taught; it was approved after the school district's lawyers convinced the board to remove certain things that were based on faith.

"This is a very important case," says Simon. "The issue here is whether the public schools are going to be used to advance any particular religious faith, be it Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism. It is a confrontation every bit as important as that with Jerry Falwell and the battle to teach, nationwide, creationism as science. What happens in Lee County may impact on public education throughout the country."

He points to the Florida ACLU's activity in other arenas. "We have in court right now the case that involves the right to abortion for minor females and minority women dependent on Medicaid." Under Blumner, the ACLU defended the Santaria Church's right to its religious practices. And, after a long battle, the ACLU steered Miami in a 180-degree turnaround -- from police brutality of the homeless that included burning of their possessions and arresting them for sleeping on park benches, to officers picking up and escorting them to shelter.

Further, the ACLU settlement in that case includes payment of up to $1,500 in food and clothing vouchers to homeless people who can prove illegal detention, arrest or property destruction by police. "Most important," says Simon, "Miami is now in the forefront of any city in the country for having a rational and humane program for dealing with the homeless. It took the ACLU 10 years to win that one."

Simon says that while he expects the familiar, pitched battles with arch-conservative activists and the Christian Coalition on issues such as discrimination against gays and lesbians, as well as continued abortion clinic violence, some issues are unique to Florida."For example, Dade County is really unique in the country. This is the ripple effect of the passionate anti-Castroism of the Cuban exile community."

What personality trait, then, does Simon possess that serves him best in such contentious life work?

Patience, he says.

Patience, he says.

"Battles often take years. We're not going to win every one of them, and we can't be impatient over unaddressed injustices. After all, we are dependent on courageous people to come forward, often at great personal risk, to challenge somebody who's abusing power."

Simon also has an ability to get along. "In Michigan, I always ended up in cordial, respectful disagreement with adversaries; I'm not the kind of individual who gets personal over disagreement. I don't have the time to waste on converting principled disagreements into personal differences."

"There are, certainly, cases that grabbed his heart and never let go. The two he cites both were civil rights cases that arose from the 1960s."

"From time to time, the government violates the law, and if you didn't have a group like the ACLU -- I mean, who else is going to haul the government into court to get them to stop violating people's rights, to hold government accountable when it has broken the law?" he says.

It was 1975 before a U.S. Senate committee finally heard a paid FBI informant testify that, during nonviolent civil rights activities, the FBI encouraged -- and even joined in -- violent acts against civil rights workers. Specifically, the informant described his own involvement in Alabama during the Freedom Rides, when activists from the North traveled to the front lines in the South.

Subsequently, the ACLU sued on behalf of Michigan resident Walter Bergman, a Freedom Rider who, in 1961, at age 67, suffered a stroke and permanent paralysis after a vicious beating. The FBI was found responsible for the attack; Bergman, who has been confined to a wheelchair ever since, received a $50,000 settlement for violations of his civil rights.

Now 98, Bergman remains close to Simon, who promises him a big100th-birthday bash.

The other case, filed on behalf of Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit-area wife and mother of five who was shot to death in March 1965 during the Selma-Montgomery Freedom Ride, did not end in a cash settlement. A judge ruled that it was impossible to know whether the bullet that entered her head from a passing carload of Klansmen was fired by an FBI informant, who was riding in the car. Simon also remains close to the Liuzzo family.

In the face of day-in-and-day-out injustices, there must be a remarkable energy source to shore up the spirits of crusaders. For Simon, it is outrage: "It is the idiocy of politicians, the endless abuse of power by people in authority, that just gets my blood boiling and has from the time I was a kid," he says. "It's the reason I work for the ACLU."

"Our job is always to tell those with political power and those who are in the majority when they've gone too far, when they've violated the Bill of Rights. If freedom in this country is going to be preserved, that kind of vigilance has to be kept; there must be accountability, and that's what keeps me going."

That, and golf and opera. "You know what I love about golf? Its symmetry. Some people live to hit a 250-yard drive, some live to sink a 40-foot putt, I just like to be on a hill and hit a ball, and it goes where I want it to go -- it's a miraculous feeling. Especially after a rain, when the world is quiet and still and there's nobody but you out there."

As for opera, what if he was stranded forever somewhere and could have with him only the music of one composer?

"Ah, it would be Verdi. His music is so melodic. Any opera by him is beautiful, touching and stirring, and feeds my soul."

Continuing the nurturing theme, Simon reflects on a question about heroes.

"There is a charcoal drawing on my wall that I am very proud of. It's Edward R. Morrow. He inspired me, an inspiration which pushed me into this kind of work. The courage he displayed during the McCarthy period is a role model I've tried to emulate."

"He spoke ... of having the insight and the wisdom to see an injustice, and to see the historical or broader significance of a seeming small event. And he spoke of having the courage to buck conventional wisdom, to not be intimidated by prevailing opinion or by those in power. ‘Speak out,' he said. And that's what I try to do."