Back in time: Civil rights lawyer leads local teens on 'Freedom Tour' of South


 By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News
A 107-year-old living icon of the American civil rights movement was an inspiration to teens on a “Freedom Tour” led by attorney Cary McGehee, who chaperoned a group of 34 Metro Detroit and out-of-state high school students on a two-week bus trip of the Deep South in June.
Despite a flat tire near the outset, this trip to learn about and better understand civil rights history and its continuing relevance and importance was a resounding success, said McGehee, a civil litigator and trial attorney with more than 20 years of experience in employment and civil rights litigation.
McGehee, a founding partner of Pitt, McGehee, Palmer, Rivers, and Golden in Royal Oak which was a major financial backer of the trip, is the long-time chair of the trip’s sponsor, the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, co-founded in Detroit 33 years ago by her father, Bishop H. Coleman McGehee Jr.
Both her parents once marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 
“My father was an attorney before he went into the ministry,” she said. “He encouraged me to go to law school and through his example as a advocate and the work that he accomplished through his social and economic justice ministry, he inspired me to go into the civil rights legal field.”
According to McGehee, many high school students are no longer taught civil rights history. 
“It’s important they understand how we got where we are now, so that they can help move us forward to keep fighting for equal rights and justice,” she said.
The tour kicked off in Atlanta, where students spent a week being trained in the philosophy of nonviolent protest at The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. They visited King’s former house, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church where King was baptized as a child, and later ordained as a minister, and where his funeral was held after his 1968 assassination.
During the tour, the group met several veterans of the civil rights movement, including Dr. Amelia Platts Boynton Robinson, age 107, a planner and leader of the March 7, 1965 march that became known as Bloody Sunday. Scheduled to walk from Selma to Montgomery, the marchers got as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma when they were attacked and stopped. Robinson, along with several others, was gassed, beaten, and left for dead. Nevertheless, two weeks later, the marchers resumed their walk and on March 25, 1965, arrived at the Alabama State Capitol—a stop on the bus tour, as was the bridge.
Robinson, who spoke to the teens of the threats and civil rights violations she and husband Samuel Boynton had endured, challenged the youngsters to step up to the plate and accept leadership, and urged them to avoid drugs, drink, and things that come from the outside and destroy the spirit. 
“Her story of courage and tenacity, and her message of forgiveness are amazing and inspirational,” McGehee said, and added, “It was a sad irony, that the Freedom Tour students crossed the Pettus bridge on the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Shelby, Alabama v. Holder, where the U.S. Supreme Court found unconstitutional Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which is widely regarded as the heart of the legislation.”
The bus also stopped at the Viola Liuzzo Memorial alongside a highway in Alabama, where a civil rights worker from Detroit was shot and killed by Ku Klux Klan members after the Selma to Montgomery march. 
Dean Robb, 89, a civil rights attorney from Detroit who went on the trip, spoke to the students about his experience representing Liuzzo’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit he filed on their behalf against the FBI in 1977. The lawsuit claimed an FBI informant and employee of the FBI, who was in the car with the Ku Klux Klan members when they killed Liuzzo, had failed to prevent Liuzzo’s death and had, in effect, conspired in the murder.
In Meridian, Miss., the teens participated in a march in memory of three civil rights activists—James Earl “J.E.” Chaney from Meridian, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner from New York City—murdered during “Freedom Summer” by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Miss. The group visited Chaney’s gravesite, and First Union Baptist Church in Meridian where Chaney’s funeral took place in 1964.
They also met Diane Nash, leader of the student wing of the 1960s Movement, and founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose efforts resulted in the first successful civil rights campaign to de-segregate lunch counters; the Freedom Riders, who de-segregated interstate travel; and the Selma Voting Rights Movement campaign.
In Montgomery, the group visited the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church & Parsonage where King was pastor from 1954 to 1960 and where he began his quest for civil rights. The National Historic Landmark includes the pulpit where King first preached his message of hope and brotherhood, and a mural depicts his civil rights crusade from Montgomery to Memphis. 
“The students were given a private concert by the same organist who played while Dr. King was the pastor of the church, and who is still organist today,” McGehee said. “At the end of the concert, the students stood and, while accompanied by the organist, sang the black national anthem, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’”
At the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, the group saw a replica of the public bus on which—on December 1, 1955—Parks refused to vacate her seat in the colored section to a white passenger when the white section was full. 
In Birmingham, Ala., the group took in the 16th Street Baptist Church, the September 1963 target of a bombing by members of the Ku Klux Klan that killed four girls and injured 22 others. The church also was the site of the Children’s Crusade, a march by hundreds of school students in May 1963, eventually stopped by police using fire hoses and police dogs.
“The Freedom Tour was truly a transformational experience,” McGehee said. “The places we saw, people we met and history we learned demonstrated to the students the courage and power young people possess and the difference they can make in their communities, their state, their country and the world. The students were inspired by the trip to return to their beloved communities as social justice leaders. As Dr. King taught us, everyone can be great because anybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”
An expert in civil rights, McGehee has tried numerous civil rights cases including discrimination cases based on age, national origin, sex, race and disability, cases alleging retaliation and sexual harassment, and violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act. She also was part of the trial counsel team that successfully litigated a class action lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections on behalf of more than 500 female prisoners who had been raped, sexually assaulted, and harassed by male corrections officers. The case resulted in a $100 million settlement after two multi-million-dollar jury verdicts.
She has been passionate about civil rights since her law student days, when she clerked for a couple of plaintiff’s law firms and became active as a student in progressive legal organizations such as the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild. After graduation, she was hired by a plaintiff’s firm as an employment/civil rights attorney, an area of law that seemed a perfect fit.
Michael Pitt, a senior partner and civil rights attorney, took McGehee under his wing and mentored her. 
“Through Mike’s love of the practice of law and commitment to social justice, and his incredible work ethic, I learned what an important difference attorneys can make as social engineers who change and make laws that advance and protect human rights,” she said.