Taking a stand: Steve Rubin’s fight for civil rights

Steve Rubin peers into his 1961 Rambler Classic the morning after his car was firebombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan in New Orleans. Steve Rubin peers into his 1961 Rambler Classic the morning after his car was firebombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan in New Orleans.

The first thing Steve Rubin heard was not the wailing sirens of a fire truck, but the shouts of his house guest, actor Bob Costley, alerting Rubin his car was on fire. Rubin had expected this—he routinely checked underneath his car for a bomb before going to his teaching job at Louisiana State University New Orleans, but he admits he “didn’t even know what a bomb would look like.” And he had moved his son, Joshua, out of the second floor apartment’s front bedroom so that Joshua and his sister, Jennifer, shared the middle bedroom, away from the screened-in porch. Rubin, then president of the New Orleans chapter of the ACLU, had been receiving harassing phone calls at home from people he presumed were Ku Klux Klan members. 

It was March 1965, when Rubin stepped out of his house at about 1am to see his 1961 off-white Rambler Classic engulfed in flames. The next morning, a friend of Rubin’s, Ed Holander with the Congress of Racial Equality, who never went anywhere without his camera, snapped a photo of Rubin staring through the hollowed out car, now just a torched metal frame with tattered insides. Eventually three men—all members of the KKK—were arrested for setting fire to a church in town that same night, about 20 minutes before Rubin’s car was set ablaze. Rubin says he knows they were the same men who firebombed his car.

In typical Rubin fashion, he laughs a little at the memory, saying he was glad to get rid of that car, which “couldn’t outrun a Volkswagen.” He didn’t miss it, but finding an insurance company that would cover someone who was now the target of car torchings was another story. When Rubin visited nearby towns on ACLU business, he had to borrow a friend’s black Thunderbird so he was sure he could outdrive the KKK members who pursued him to the town’s borders.

Even with multiple threats and nonstop harassment—he entered his locked office at LSU on three occasions to find a business card from the Klan letting him know it had been there—Rubin never wavered in his dedication to civil rights and helping those in need. It was something that was unavoidable to him; something he had to do.

“I certainly wasn’t important to the civil rights movement though it was, and it changed my life forever,” he says.

Civil matters

Steve Rubin, 83, grew up on Long Island, New York, in a white middle-class liberal household. His father, Max. J. Rubin, served as president of the New York City Board of Education, and was an early outspoken critic of funding public education through real estate taxes, because it meant the suburban schools would be well off, and inner city schools would be poor. There’s a photo of Max Rubin and Bobby Kennedy together on the wall downstairs in Rubin’s study in his Charlottesville home, where other black-and-white images from the era, including the photos of Rubin’s burned car and one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hang. As Rubin takes the King photo off the wall to see if a date is written on the back, he points out a poignant Do Not Enter sign, just visible in the background. These photos and other pieces of memorabilia, a cover of Jet magazine with one of Rubin’s mentors, civil rights activist Mary Hamilton, on the front, to buttons from groups such as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Congress of Racial Equality and the NAACP, are all the remnants he has from his time with the ACLU during the Civil Rights Movement.

Civil rights activist Mary Hamilton is one of Rubin’s idols. When she was addressed in court as “Mary,” she insisted she be addressed as “Miss Hamilton,” the same courtesy given to white people. She spent a month in jail for contempt of court, and the Supreme Court decision backing her changed courtroom procedures in the South.
Civil rights activist Mary Hamilton is one of Rubin’s idols. When she was addressed in court as “Mary,” she insisted she be addressed as “Miss Hamilton,” the same courtesy given to white people. She spent a month in jail for contempt of court, and the Supreme Court decision backing her changed courtroom procedures in the South. Courtesy subject

Rubin’s foray into civil rights began almost immediately upon his move to New Orleans in 1960 with his wife, Gail, who was pregnant at the time with their daughter, Jenny, and their young son, Joshua. Rubin had been working as a professor in Delaware for two years—his first job after graduating from Carleton College and NYU—when one of his Carleton professors suggested he study at Tulane University. Rubin received a scholarship to Tulane and pursued his Ph.D. in English (though he never finished it) while teaching at LSU’s New Orleans campus.

He remembers well the moment his life changed forever. He had been invited to a meeting of the Congress of Racial Equality and says the evening “stunned” him. One of the young women in attendance asked Ronnie Moore, a civil rights activist who was not more than 18 at the time, if he would march with them the next Saturday. Moore, without hesitation, said he would be marching on Monday in a little town south of Baton Rouge called Plaquemine, and he knew he was going to be beaten there and he would have to go to the hospital. But he said if he was out of the hospital on Friday, he would march with them the next day.

“What struck me was that nobody thought this was a remarkable answer, but I thought it was a remarkable answer,” Rubin says. “The very ordinariness of this anticipated experience…I went home and said, ‘Gail, I’ve got to do something.’”

That something began with Rubin working with the NAACP, for which he led a crusade to get the publisher of the morning and evening newspapers to stop identifying the race of black men who had committed crimes while not identifying white perpetrators. Rubin argued you wouldn’t identify someone as Catholic, so why include their race? The answer he received was that they were doing girls of New Orleans a favor by printing addresses and races of those accused of crimes because “a lot of them didn’t know where their friends lived.” Rubin fired a note back saying the response was “pure vaudeville.” And though he respected the work of the NAACP, which mainly focused on desegregation in schools, Rubin wanted to join an organization involved more directly on the front lines—he never could shake the image of a battered Moore marching. In the fall of 1963, Rubin joined the board of the New Orleans ACLU chapter, “a tiny group” then, became its president in 1965 and served as a national ACLU board member from 1965-68.

Justice for all

One of Rubin’s most vivid memories from his time as ACLU president was of a march from Franklinton, Louisiana, to Bogalusa, a town 19 miles away. He can’t recall the date of the march or how many people were involved, but what he does remember is the black woman who walked in front of him, with ankles so swollen he knew each step was excruciating.

“I could see that every step had to be painful for her, she was ahead of me, and she did those 19 miles,” he says. “I would get so moved by that.”

She was his reason to keep going–on that day and many others.

Rubin’s friend, George Thomas, who taught photography at MIT, took this photo of Dr. Martin Luther King in Boston. The photo has never been officially published, and Rubin has a couple of prints. Courtesy subject
Rubin’s friend, George Thomas, who taught photography at MIT, took this photo of Dr. Martin Luther King in Boston. The photo has never been officially published, and Rubin has a couple of prints. Courtesy subject

He participated in several marches and protests over the years, and learned the words to many spirituals that served as a mantra during the demonstrations. After moving to Charlottesville in 1993, Rubin got to see Odetta perform at the Gravity Lounge off the Downtown Mall—the last time he had heard her sing was at a CORE/ACLU event in New Orleans. He keeps a recording of Odetta singing one of the many hymns that became the soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement on his desktop computer, and says he “has to hear it every so often.”

Years ago, three white farmers from upstate Louisiana visited Rubin’s tiny ACLU office in New Orleans, which was certainly not a normal sight. He said when they looked at each other he could see it in their faces: He was the enemy. The men told him they wanted their children to go to school but their children didn’t have birth certificates; in those days birth certificates were required to attend school because race was listed on them. They were afraid someone might say their children weren’t white, and thus they would not be able to attend all-white schools. Rubin called his friend Lolis Elie, a partner in the firm of Collins, Douglas and Elie and an eventual assistant district attorney for the city. Rubin laughs at how the white men initially were unsure about accepting help from this African-American lawyer, but that the suit on their behalf resulted in the removal of race on birth certificates in Louisiana.

Rubin remained friends with Elie’s family throughout his life. Elie’s wife, Geraldine, and daughter, Migel, have visited the Rubins at their summer home in Nova Scotia—where Migel ate crabs for the first time. And among the hundred or so photos on the Rubins’ refrigerator is one from a visit from Elie’s son, Lolis Eric Elie, who attended graduate school at UVA. Lolis Eric is wearing a white apron while stirring a big pot of his family’s signature gumbo that takes nine hours to make.

Charlottesville resident Steve Rubin was president of the New Orleans ACLU from 1965-68. Photo by Jackson Smith
Charlottesville resident Steve Rubin was president of the New Orleans ACLU from 1965-68. Photo by Jackson Smith

In the ’60s, part of Rubin’s job was to visit potential plaintiffs at their home on the ACLU’s behalf. During one visit to Bogalusa, he planned to speak with a family about desegregating the local hospitals—at that time black citizens had to drive to New Orleans, 75 miles away.

He pulled up to the house only to find all the neighbors camped out on their roofs holding rifles. Someone handed him a .22, and he thought, “What the hell am I doing on the roof with a loaded rifle? I’m not going to pull the trigger.” The night before, someone had shot into the house, and the neighbors were ready to retaliate. Thankfully, Rubin says he was never put to the test.

Rubin wrote multiple letters to Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights John Doar, about numerous incidents that had occurred in Bogalusa (Rubin says it was common knowledge half of the local police force were Klansmen). In one letter, Doar responded that his office had brought a suit prohibiting discrimination at six restaurants in Bogalusa. While true, it wasn’t enough for Rubin, and he persisted in his correspondence. Years later a suit was brought against the Bogalusa Police Department—a victory.

Twice Rubin was chased from Bogalusa by KKK members after being there on ACLU business. They pursued him all the way to the causeway leading to New Orleans. The whole time he was driving he hoped he didn’t get a flat tire; or if he was in Elie’s car he anticipated how the car would swerve to the left if he hit the brakes.

The effects of Rubin’s involvement trickled down to his family. When his daughter called out “Good morning!” to a certain neighbor, he kept walking without acknowledging the little girl. That broke Rubin’s heart. And it got to the point where he couldn’t let his children answer the home phone, because the person on the other end would tell them, “I killed your daddy today,” or they would detail the route the children took to school. But both Rubin and his wife were steadfast in their part in the Civil Rights Movement and refused to stop being involved, despite threats. Their phone was tapped, too, they knew. On one occasion, Rubin received a call to be at a certain street at 3pm for a demonstration. When he got there, police cars had already surrounded the area.

“Yes, I worried about Gail and the kids but I think I did the right thing,” Rubin says. “I’m very grateful that I was there, no matter how minor a role or participant. I would have hated to be a spectator, because it was, after all, one of the major events in our lifetime in America. I was always grateful I wasn’t in Ohio, where I might have joined organizations but it was pretty white bread.”

In 1968, a lawyer who also served on the national board of directors for the ACLU flew to New Orleans from New York City to try to convince Rubin to become head of the national ACLU, which Rubin calls a “shocking” invitation. The man who accepted the position, Aryeah Neier, was “the right guy for the job,” Rubin says.

“When I left the movement I didn’t even want to read about it—I couldn’t,” he says. “I went 10 to 15 years without reading a word, unless somebody sent me a clipping. Now I’m greatly happy to have done it.”

Rubin went on to chair the English department at the State University of New York at Oneonta, the city where he and his family lived for 15 years. He and Gail moved to Charlottesville after many visits to see their best friends from their civil rights days in New Orleans.

“I was the winner here,” Rubin says. “I came away from the movement not having contributed a great deal, but it contributed a great deal to me. And I knew it when we left New Orleans.”

Finding a family

When you enter Mike Mallory’s office, one of the first things you notice is the “Steve Rubin wall” in the back right corner. As an homage to the longtime Ron Brown Scholar Program volunteer, Mallory, president and CEO of the nonprofit, has put up not just framed photographs of Rubin, including him with his torched car and an article written about the incident, but also photos of Rubin’s family—one of his father, Max, with his arm around Bobby Kennedy—the same one in Rubin’s study—and a photo of Rubin’s daughter, who was killed in 1984 in Togo, Africa, while on a Peace Corps assignment.

Rubin’s father, Max J. Rubin, right, served as president of the New York City Board of Education, and Bobby Kennedy used him as a resource on public education, especially regarding funding.
Rubin’s father, Max J. Rubin, right, served as president of the New York City Board of Education, and Bobby Kennedy used him as a resource on public education, especially regarding funding. Courtesy subject

The wall looks more like something you’d find in someone’s living room, which is fitting—Rubin, who began volunteering with the program in 1998, a year after it was established, is like family. Mallory says he and Rubin connected instantly when they were introduced by a mutual friend who told Mallory, “You just have to meet this guy.” Rubin opened up about what happened to his daughter, and that he had videotapes of the CBS special the network ran after her death, and Mallory said he would have them made into DVDs to preserve them.

“We just felt connected—it can’t be really explained,” Mallory says. “He’s a kind fellow and he would do anything for anybody, but I needed a lot [at that time].”

Again, Rubin jumped right in. Alongside a staff of just three at the time, Rubin volunteered as much as he could—up to 30 hours a week—serving as a reader of scholarship applications. Each year, approximately 25 African-American students across the country are awarded a $40,000 college scholarship through the Ron Brown Scholarship Program. Out of a field of 5,000 to 7,000 applications, Rubin and his team of readers would whittle the candidates down to the top 200. The 175 students who don’t receive scholarships are called Ron Brown Captains, and remain in touch with program graduates and mentors about opportunities for furthering their careers. Mallory, who has saved his calendars since 1987, can recall every Ron Brown Scholar Program recipient, and knows where they are now and what they’ve accomplished; continuing mentorship is a cornerstone of the program, as the scholars go through college and start careers/internships.

Rubin’s last official program title was “editor”—no correspondence was released without him having read it first. His most recent project began two years ago, when he laid the foundation for a book tracing the organization’s 20-year history, which will be released in April (a retired UVA professor took over editing the book when Rubin had to step away from volunteering after his health declined).

During days when Rubin came in to volunteer, Mallory had to institute the three-minute rule. He was only allowed to speak to each staff member or volunteer he passed for three minutes, otherwise, he’d never get any work done.

“He’s one of my favorite people!” exclaims Kiya Jones, a 1999 graduate of the Ron Brown Scholar Program who now leads the organization’s high school Guided Pathways Support program. For years she shared an office with Rubin, who told stories from his civil rights days.

“He talked about how he had done all this civil rights work in Mississippi and Louisiana, and then I later moved to Mississippi and got to travel a lot in Louisiana and I just don’t see how he could have done that,” she says. “Just incredible stories, not just how he survived there back then—it’s hard enough to survive in those places today— [but why] he chose to be there and do that work for so long. And, he has good taste in barbecue.”

Jen Fariello has been the Ron Brown Scholar Program’s official photographer since it started. She sees Rubin every year at the annual awards ceremony, and says she loves how he has become a mentor to all the incoming scholars and program participants—they know they have someone in their corner.

“The thing that always struck me about that is they’re the kindest, happiest, most positive and uplifting people I have ever met,” Fariello says about Rubin and his wife, who accompanies him to the ceremonies. As for Rubin himself, “He would give you the shirt off his back.”

Well, he did almost that one year, when one of the scholarship winners, who went on to attend Princeton and now works at Amazon, forgot his dress shoes. Right before the ceremony, Rubin gave the student his own shoes to wear.

“These people in this program, they transform the lives of these young boys and girls in a way unlike any other scholarship program; it’s not only money, but giving them mentorship, family and structure,” Fariello says. “The program is Steve getting to save a life all over again.”

Fariello is referring to the tragic death of Rubin’s daughter, Jennifer. Jennifer had been on a Peace Corps assignment in the village of Defale, in the West African country of Togo, for a year when she was murdered by a villager she had befriended. The woman, Giselle, had stolen some items from Jennifer, and instead of going to the police, Jennifer told the girl’s father, who was also her landlord. Giselle and two other men were charged with Jennifer’s murder—at the time the ninth killing of a Peace Corps volunteer in the program’s 23-year history. Rubin said in an article in the New York Times that despite feeling lonely, his daughter wrote to her parents that she knew she was exactly where she needed to be, helping women build more efficient stoves out of local materials, such as mud. The Rubins received many letters that the Peace Corps forwarded—and they answered every single one.

One day the Peace Corps called and said they had Togo on the other line. Two of Jennifer’s killers had been caught (the third fled to Ghana), and the court wanted to know if the Rubins wanted them executed—it would happen immediately. Rubin looked across the room at his wife, and said into the phone, “Tell the court we do not request they be executed.”

“It saved our lives,” Rubin said. “That was a stroke of good fortune to be given the option and not to have sought vengeance. We had subsequently thought we might not ever have been normal again had that not happened.”

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