Zev Aelony, Civil Rights Movement activist, dies


Nearly 50 years before the United States elected a black president, Zev Aelony dedicated himself to the cause of freedom for black people in the Southern states. It was a pursuit that carried serious risks – physical attack, imprisonment and, for some, violent death.

Aelony, who died Nov. 1 in his Minneapolis home, was the founder of Students for Integration at the University of Minnesota, which recruited whites from the Midwest to go on Freedom Rides, bus excursions to integrate public facilities in the South that were segregated along racial lines.

Zev Aelony (Photo: Del Bey)
Zev Aelony (Photo: Del Bey)

Marv Davidov, of Minneapolis, a longtime political activist, recalls happening on a meeting of Students for Integration on the U of M campus in June 1961. Some eight people were considering participating in the Freedom Ride to Jackson, Miss. The meeting was on a Wednesday; the group would leave Friday.

Davidov was quiet during the meeting, then “Zev looked at me and he said, ‘How about you, Marv?’ So I knew he was serious. Everybody respected him.”

Davidov told Aelony that he would let him know later that night. After hours of soul-searching about his commitment to oppose racism, he called Aelony at midnight and said that he would go. The group of six ultimately was arrested and imprisoned in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm prison.

Aelony played chess with other inmates, using chess pieces he fashioned out of “masticated white bread,” Davidov recalls.


Two years later, Aelony was arrested with three others in Americus, Ga. The “Americus Four” faced the death penalty for allegedly fomenting an insurrection in their attempt to register black voters. The four activists charged under the state’s 1871 Anti-Treason Act were eventually exonerated.

“He said and he lived what he believed,” Aelony’s son Jared, of Detroit Lakes, Minn., told the Star Tribune, regarding his father’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.

“It took a lot of courage” for Aelony to travel to the South during the time of Jim Crow, the system of racial segregation, said Harold Londer, a leader of Or Emet-Minnesota Congregation for Humanistic Judaism and a longtime friend. “Zev was from that old, proud tradition of Jewish social activism.”

Londer added that Aelony, who active in Or Emet, was a “very soft-spoken, peaceful man.”

Aelony, who graduated from the University of Minnesota and lived for a year on Kibbutz Shoval in Israel, made his living selling security products for commercial buildings. His wife, Karen, told the Star Tribune that he was active in DFL Party politics, and enjoyed reading and walking the family dog around Lake Harriet.

Aelony also is survived by sons Ephraim (Sara), Bjorn (Elizabeth) and Phillip; and a granddaughter, Linnea. There will be a celebration of Aelony’s life 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14 at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, 900 Mount Curve Ave.