By Jim Norman
A few weeks back, we at Bergen Ethical Culture were treated to a platform that to me represented among the highest, most significant values that we stand for as a Society.
Former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman spoke to us about how he was framed for a crime that did not exist and sent to prison for more than five years in a political vendetta engineered by his Republican opponents and assisted by George W. Bush’s favorite fixer, Karl Rove.
He spoke about the injustice that was done to him personally, but more important than that, he focused on the threat to the very foundation of our American democracy, and he spoke about the need to stand up for unjustly convicted prisoners who are in danger of being executed by a profoundly corrupt criminal justice system that is more criminal than just.
Deep appreciation for our members
To be sure, what Siegelman had to say was engaging, enraging, and eye-opening. But what left me with feelings of deep gratitude and appreciation for the kinds of members we at Ethical are privileged to count as friends was the remarkable story behind the story—how a headliner like Don Siegelman came to us.
Aimee Kass, who moderated Governor Siegelman’s Zoom appearance before us on April 10, has been in the vanguard of the struggle for justice since she first became aware of his case 14 years ago, when the TV show “60 Minutes” focused on it in 2008.
Something about the injustice of the case gripped Aimee and motivated her to look more deeply into the horrifying and corrosive forces that were afoot in American politics, and once she determined that a profound injustice had been done, she never lost her focus.
‘I made that cold call’
“I spent two weeks trying to track him down online,” Aimee recalls. “My work at law firms taught me how to be a good skip tracer. Finally, I made that cold call.” At first, she says, Siegelman was confused by her offer to help.
“Looking back, this looks rash. What could a resident of New Jersey do to help a man in Alabama who looked to an outsider as another crooked politician and who was going to go to jail? I didn’t care. Don Siegelman needed my help whether he knew me or not.”
Those of us who know Aimee know how quietly tenacious she can be. But what motivates her, what is the secret sauce that makes her who she is? In her own words:
“Being ethical is just who I am. My parents sent me to Sunday School, theoretically to be indoctrinated into the Jewish faith. I was ‘that kid,’ at age 6, stopping the lesson, wanting to discuss the ethics behind the stories. Why did God love Abel more than Cain? Why would God want to flood the Earth? Why did Esau sell his birthright to his brother when Jacob could have just given him soup? Why would Abraham be prepared to kill his son upon demand? Why would Delilah lie to Samson for money? Stuff like that.
‘All it took was courage’
“What I did pick up from my Old Testament studies was a burning sense of justice, real justice. All it took was courage, and if not courage, acting like you had it.
“From elementary years to high school to college to life, my radar was always on for injustice and to address it head-on. I learned to stick up for myself and others.”
Over the years since she persuaded Siegelman to let her help him, Aimee has arranged for the governor to appear on David Rothenberg’s WBAI show “Any Saturday” five times, and on the Sam Greenfield show several more times.
As clearly as anyone I know, our fellow Ethical Culture member Aimee Kass has demonstrated that ethical sentiment must be supported by determined, persistent action. If not, it has no more effect than a shout in the wilderness.
In her action, I find noteworthy inspiration, and may we all take note.
Jim Norman is president of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.