Forty-seven years. That’s a long time for just about anything, but a particularly long time to hold down one job.
That’s what I’ve done, working for the ACLU of Michigan. It is a job I came to love. As I near my retirement next week, I can’t imagine any other workplace providing such an opportunity for personal growth and the immense satisfaction of being involved in work that improves people’s lives.
In 1973, I was fresh out of high school and wondering where life would lead me. My Italian-American parents taught me and my six siblings the value of hard work. Getting a high school diploma meant getting a job and pulling your own weight.
With two years of typing and shorthand classes under my belt, I was referred to an employment agency for legal secretaries. After several short-term jobs, I went back to the agency for another assignment, and the agent asked, “Have you ever heard of the ACLU?” I quickly responded, “Absolutely, the American Civil Liberties Union.”
My mother was a member of the ACLU during that time. In fact, she called them once because of something that happened to me at my high school in the Detroit suburb of Roseville. For reasons still unknown to me, school administrators locked me in a closet for what seemed like an hour after a classmate, who was high on LSD, mentioned me as being someone who could explain his state of inebriation to administrators.
A call to the ACLU of Michigan from my outraged mother came next. I can’t recall what the organization did, but what stuck with me was that she turned to the ACLU for help.
Less than two years later, I was working as a legal secretary for the ACLU of Michigan, sitting in a small, bare-bones office in downtown Detroit. One of my many duties was handling “intake,” which means managing phone calls from people around the state in need of our help. Taking those calls, which I continued to do throughout my time with the ACLU, introduced me to the world of social injustices. We heard, and continue to hear from people facing racial discrimination and racial profiling, students being denied the right to protest, people facing sexism on the job, members of the LGBTQ community being harassed and discriminated against, and a host of others confronted by an onslaught of constitutional atrocities perpetrated by our government.
Some of the worst calls were from families with loved ones in prison where they described the many failures of our corrections system: lack of medical care and other abuses of individuals with a mental illness such as a young man who died after being shackled to a concrete bed for days. Complaints about police abuses and racial profiling came with regularity, including the one from a soft-spoken Black minister who was pulled over by police and had his front teeth knocked out after a sudden and unexpected punch by the officer.
One example that made me particularly proud was our fight to seek justice for the family of Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit mother of five who was murdered in 1965 while driving civil rights activists to Selma, Alabama to participate in the historic demonstrations against racial injustices. After the federal Freedom of Information Act was created, we accessed reams of files where we ultimately learned who was responsible for her killing. At the time, the FBI regularly contracted with ne’er-do-wells and, even worse, Ku Klux Klansmen to do undercover work. Gary Thomas Rowe was one of those working with the KKK on behalf of the FBI as an informant and, it was revealed, participated in the stalking and killing of Liuzzo. I remember meeting her children when they came to the office, and how thankful they were for our efforts to obtain justice for their mother.
The ACLU of Michigan was infinitely smaller then. In the beginning, it was just me and the associate director. A new executive director, Howard Simon, was hired within a few months, bringing the entire staff to a grand total of three people.
Today, we have grown to a staff of about 40 working out of four offices across the state. Not only does the ACLU of Michigan now have a team of attorneys and support staff, but we have a powerful political and legislative department, a communications team, staff dedicated to fundraising, and an operations department that makes sure everyone has the tools they need so we carry out our expansive work in the courts, legislature, and on the ground with an army of volunteers. Quite the contrast from 1973 and a staff of three.
Never was there a moment when I was idle or bored. Much like today, there was a relaxed atmosphere and we had plenty of visitors who came through our doors seeking help. Like the time an entire troupe of Hare Krishna stopped by wearing their saffron-colored robes to deliver homemade cookies as a way of saying thanks for providing a little bit of information about their right to freedom of speech.
What a privilege it has been to work for this teaching institution. As my understanding and appreciation of the law as it relates to civil liberties has grown, so too has my pride in working for this organization.
The ACLU of Michigan has had many victories, but justice is rarely swift. The work continues on behalf of parents who have seen their children kicked out of school because of flawed zero-tolerance policies, policies that mostly impact communities of color. It took a decade to prevail in challenging Michigan’s cruel policies regarding the lifetime incarceration of children—a win that finally came this year.
Though it is comforting to know that my colleagues are succeeding in helping do away with harsh sentencing laws and pushing to reform the criminal legal system, it still hurts to think about the call from a few years ago from an indigent mother of 10 children who was sentenced to three months in jail because she couldn’t afford to pay a fine for a cracked windshield. Some injustices just stay with you.
The dedication and passion of my colleagues have reminded me that this has always been more of a calling than a job. And though I will no longer be there to share their camaraderie or details about the next big case, I will be with them in spirit as they continue to work so hard to protect those rights for all of us.