The National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA) celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act with former 1960s-era civil rights activists as guest speakers on Wednesday, Feb. 18 at their headquarters on Fairfax Avenue.
The speakers included former voter registration volunteers, former Freedom Riders and civil rights activists — both black and white — who traveled throughout the U.S. and into the segregated south to challenge Jim Crow laws.
Ralph Fertig, civil rights lawyer, federal administrative judge and former Freedom Rider, and Rick Tuttle, former volunteer during 1963’s Voting Freedom Summer in Mississippi and Georgia, spoke at the event. Former Los Angeles City Councilman and Freedom Rider Robert Farrell, was scheduled to speak but had to leave at the beginning of the event.
The discussion honored the legacy of multi-cultural diversity in civil rights advocacy, especially between white, black and Jewish communities, according to NCJW/LA.
Fertig grew up in Chicago, which was one of the most segregated areas in the U.S., he said.
“I remember white hoodlums blocking the entrance of the school, stopping African Americans from entering. This was the only picket line I crossed. I arrived early and I stayed late at the school because young white segregationists were waiting for me,” Fertig said.
Fertig and others began volunteering in 1961 to travel into the south to challenge segregation laws, often encountering violent groups of proponents of segregation. The Freedom Riders inspired many people to join efforts with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other civil rights organizations of the era.
Tuttle recalled the dangers of white people like him joining with African Americans on the Freedom Rides since proponents of segregation were extremely hostile toward them. Fertig was beaten and suffered severe injuries at the hands of the segregationists, according to Tuttle.
“I was inspired by the witness and courage of Fertig, Robert Farrell, John Maguire … It was 1961 and these were the Freedom Riders. I was 21 at the time,” Tuttle said.
Historic artifacts and photos from the 1950s and 1960s were displayed, including poll tax receipts from 1950s and 1960s, by Lloyd Clayton, director of the Mayme Clayton Library and Museum of Black History.
Both Tuttle and Fertig encouraged people to make sure that the 1965 Voting Rights Act remains upheld and followed, which has to be continually renewed. Additionally, they advocated for reforms in the way law enforcement has been involved with allegations of brutality against African Americans.
“I think we need another way of doing business because if law enforcement loses its support in the community, it is bad news,” Tuttle said.
Additionally, district attorneys and grand juries currently are not the most effective in prosecuting law enforcement, according to Fertig.
“District attorneys are very friendly to the police. It’s very rare that a district attorney will bring evidence to a grand jury that is critical to the police. This has to change,” Fertig said.
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