John Perdew: A Great Civil Rights Activist

There are many civil rights figures that are household names in America, but there are many other heroes who did their vital work without ever receiving the national attention and fame they deserved. I want to honor one of them today, John Perdew, because a memorial for him was just held in Albany, Georgia, where he began working in June, 1963, a white student at Harvard College who admits he had no idea of what he was going to face by standing up against the segregation and racism of the deep South.

That very same summer, after finishing my first year at Harvard Law School, I came down South to work in Albany, Georgia for C.B. King, the only civil rights lawyer in Southwest Georgia, and an African American. That is when my life intersected with John's in a way that resonates for me still, and has a big and important lesson for this country and for all of us now.

That summer, John and others decided to hold peaceful demonstrations for voting rights and against segregation in Americus, Georgia, a small town not too far from Albany. On August 8th, a rally was held in a church, and as the demonstrators, including John, emerged ready to embark on a peaceful march, the local police and others charged them and began beating them unmercifully, using blackjacks, clubs and cattle prods. John, Zev Aelony, Ralph Allen and Don Harris were not just beaten, arrested and jailed, they were charged with insurrection against the state of Georgia. The crime carried the death penalty. Imagine, facing the death penalty for peacefully urging that African Americans be able to vote and enjoy basic civil rights.

We were all aghast and horrified. To protest the situation, SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) asked me to go to Washington and convene a press conference in front of the Justice Department. I was to take the blood stained shirts of the demonstrators and hold them up and accuse the Department and the FBI of failing to protect the Americus demonstrators, including John.

Although I knew nothing about press conferences and had never even attended one before, I did go to Washington, with a brief stop in Atlanta to meet with Julian Bond at the SNCC offices who typed the press release with two fingers. I did stand in front of the Justice Department; I did hold up the demonstrators' polo shirts stiff with dried blood. I did accuse the Department and the FBI of inaction in the face of civil rights abuses inflicted on John and others. And, we did get a bit of coverage in the press.

But our voices were not heard by the officials in Washington. They took no action on behalf of John and the other Americus demonstrators. And, they continued to provide no protection for civil rights workers and continued to fail to enforce civil rights laws. Their ears were deaf to the beatings and the jailings and the injustice. It took the murder, one year later, of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Cheney in Mississippi, for Washington to begin to change its tune.

I relate this story because it shows how courageous John and other civil rights workers in Southwest Georgia, and elsewhere were. They had none of the big institutions in this country to help them -- not the White House, not the Justice Department, not the FBI. And the forces arrayed against them were strong and brutal. The struggle of the civil rights workers was a terribly dangerous one -- we cannot forget that -- but John and the others didn't shirk it for one moment. They never gave up. They saw the light of freedom, of justice shining. They also had amazing support from the African American communities in which they worked. And in the end they won impressive victories. One of these was the federal court's decision declaring the insurrection statute unconstitutional, which freed John and the other Americus prisoners after being held for three months in jail.

John later married a black woman activist from Americus, finished his studies at Harvard, moved back to the South where he worked to help the underprivileged for the rest of his life.

John's life has a lesson for us today. His struggle -- our struggle -- for a just society, for true equality and respect -- is not over. Far from it. All we have to look at is the widespread assault on the Voting Rights Act today. But like him, we cannot walk away; we cannot give up.