Civil rights leader brings message to Bay College

R. R. Branstrom | Daily Press Lewis (“Lew”) Zuchman speaks on struggle, human connection and civil rights at Bay College in Escanaba on Thursday.

ESCANABA — During the week of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Bay College’s Besse Center in Escanaba hosted Lewis (“Lew”) Zuchman, a man who grew up in a troubled environment and whose journey led him to becoming a civil rights activist. Today, he’s active in the community, speaks to at-risk and incarcerated youth, and works for a non-profit service organization in New York.

Though Zuchman may be viewed as a legend for his participation in Freedom Rides, the sit-in movement and the Meredith March Against Fear — are all acts that elevated the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s — he said, “The civil rights movement is glorified more than it should be. Resistance didn’t start with us. Resistance existed back in the plantations during slavery and continues today.”

Zuchman began his talk on Thursday by explaining what his life was like growing up in Brooklyn without a father, with an abusive mother and constantly in trouble. He attacked a teacher when he was seven and was arrested for the first time by the age of 13.

“In New York City, when I was in middle school, they took all the worst kids in each borough — this is a true story — and put us all in one school,” said Zuchman. “I was one of the only two Jewish kids in the school. We broke down every teacher we had.”

The crowd laughed; the casual manner in which Zuchman discussed what had the potential to be serious and heavy kept the mood up and peppered with humor.

In youth, he befriended the children at the neighborhood orphanage and found kinship with those who also suffered. He fought, hung out in pool halls, dropped out of college and became involved with organized crime.

Zuchman said that since he was five or six years old, Jackie Robinson was his hero. Though Robinson reportedly had a temper, he remained cool, collected and non-violent when need be.

“I couldn’t understand how he didn’t fight back, but I admired him,” said Zuchman.

So when Jackie Robinson appeared on TV and spoke in support of young civil rights activists, Zuchman volunteered for the Freedom Riders.

In 1961, when Southern states continued segregation despite Supreme Court decisions that it was unconstitutional, civil rights activists organized “Freedom Rides.” The plan was to ride interstate buses into the south, say nothing about who they were before reaching the destination, enter the segregated bus stations with feigned compliance and then challenge the status quo by boarding buses and sitting together.

“We were testing the state’s right to segregate,” Zuchman explained.

“God knows why (the Freedom Riders) ever accepted me, because I was not non-violent. I didn’t say I was non-violent,” Zuchman admitted. “But as John Moody, one of my fellow Freedom Riders from Howard University said, ‘look, man, I’m not non-violent, but I’m not stupid.'” He said that they did not directly antagonize or sass the cops.

The Freedom Rides were to be a peaceful act of rebellion. They were met with terror: police in Alabama organized with the Ku Klux Klan to attack the activists. Violent mobs burned buses full of people. Others beat Freedom Riders at bus stations.

“The governor of Mississippi promised to protect us when we crossed into Mississippi, and he did protect us,” said Zuchman, “but he didn’t say what was going to happen — they arrested us and put us in Parchman State Penitentiary, which is still perhaps the worst prison in America.”

He and his fellow Riders were imprisoned in Parchman for 40 days.

Zuchman said that he was asked repeatedly during the anniversary in 2011 if he was proud of how “successful” the civil rights movement has been.

“Are you crazy?” he demanded in reply. “It’s a catastrophe! What’s successful? In East Harlem, 20% of our young people are reading at grade level. … Healthcare is a catastrophe. Almost half of our adult males will be in jail at some point in their lives. Do you know what it’s like to be in prison today? It is much worse than anyone wants to talk about.

“I could go on and on. This is not a subjective statement. Every way in which we can look at life has gotten worse and worse and worse.”

The presentation at Bay was advertised as an “MLK Day Conversation.”

Zuchman spoke highly of Dr. King, whom he met twice, and called him a “gracious” man. He also pointed out that people cherry-pick his quotes and forget the King stood up for all downtrodden people.

“This is about all of us. This is about humanity, our interconnectedness,” said Zuchman.

He then read aloud the following quote from King:

“There are millions and millions of Americans, black, white, brown and yellow, living on isolated islands of poverty, despite the vast ocean of prosperity in America.”

Zuchman also quoted reggae musician Bob Marley early in the discussion; later, he referenced Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.

In Tolstoy’s book “On Life,” Zuchman explained, the writer concludes that the means to happiness is not by pursuing and attaining selfish goals, but by forging connections with other people and working together.

“Always looking for ‘me’ leads to isolation, depression, and impoverishment of the spirit. That’s why we’re not happy. Happiness can only come from connection,” said Zuchman.

He said that small towns are positioned to benefit from that practice more than big cities are.

“On the flight here, from Detroit to Marquette — nicest people I ever met were on that flight,” Zuchman said. “So living in a town like Marquette — where I assume people get to know each other better, as opposed to living in New York where we don’t even look at each other … I think you all who live in small towns have a real human advantage, because I think there is more of a connection, rather than everyone separate.”

Zuchman is the executive director of SCAN-Harbor, a service organization for high-risk children and families in Harlem, East Harlem and the South Bronx, which under his leadership has grown to be the largest in the area and helps thousands of individuals annually. He is also an adjunct professor in the psychology department at City College of New York.

While in town, Zuchman planned to meet with incarcerated youth at Bay Pines Center, the juvenile detention and treatment facility in Escanaba.


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