Kary Moss, Executive Director, ACLU of Michigan, talks her experience with the organization and its mission. Clarence Tabb Jr., The Detroit News


Like many children of the 1960s, Kary Moss witnessed history being made through the modern civil rights movement and protest marches calling for change in America.

"I was incredibly affected by the life and death of Martin Luther King ... the degree to which dissent was suppressed over the Vietnam War ... the death of Bobby Kennedy ..."  she said.  "Just to grow up in that era was very moving to me." 

Moss, 59, said she grew up in Southfield at a time when "people were fighting for something as basic as voting rights ... just the right to vote and still dealing with legal segregation in this country."

Moss said she always wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, and she fulfilled that goal with the American Civil Liberties Union, becoming a staff attorney for the group's Women’s Rights Project, started by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

What she didn't plan on was becoming an administrator. But her success in the courtroom on the ACLU's behalf got her noticed, and led to her being named the executive director of the group's Michigan chapter, where she tackled issues including lead contamination of Flint's water and the detention of Iraqi immigrants.

 Now, after 20 years years leading ACLU Michigan, Moss is moving up again in the organization. Last month, she was named its director of affiliate support and nationwide initiatives, a job that means she'll be moving to New York at the end of September.

In her new role in New York, Moss will oversee a $30 million budget and lead the development and implementation of programs and initiatives "that strengthen and maintain the connections between the ACLU and its 54 affiliates as a cohesive nationwide organization," the ACLU of Michigan said in announcing her departure.

"We are sad to lose Kary’s leadership at the state level," Dan Varner, board president for the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement.  "However, we are thrilled that she will put her skill, dedication and passion to work for the benefit of the entire country."

Moss said she will miss working in Michigan but looks forward to the challenges of her new role.

“I am forever grateful and appreciative to have had the fortune to work with people who bring compassion, brilliance and heart to their work every day," she said. "I am honored to join the ACLU’s national office, under the leadership of Anthony D. Romero, to help the organization and our country meet the many threats to democracy that we face today.”

Those threats, according to Moss, include efforts to discourage minorities from voting.

"A lot of the most of the important issues of the day play out in Michigan, important issues on a national landscape," she said. "This is the state that Donald Trump won by 13,000 votes, so voter suppression really matters here. Voting modernization really matters here. We have a ballot initiative called Promote the Voter and if we are successful it could significantly increased turnout in 2020 and affect the next presidential election." 

Despite leaving for New York this fall, Moss said she'll work on the Promote the Voter campaign through the November election. The ballot issue would authorize no-reason absentee voting, require a straight party voting option on general election ballots and provide for automatic voter registration.

Moss helped bring national attention to the water crisis in Flint by assigning ACLU Michigan's investigative reporter, Curt Guyette, to look into reports of rashes and other skin problems among the city's water customers starting in 2014, when a state-appointed emergency manager switched Flint's water source.

She opened an ACLU office in Flint and joined the National Resources Defense Council in a lawsuit to have the city's lead service lines replaced, a process that's underway.

Under Moss, the ACLU also reached a settlement earlier this month in a 2016 federal lawsuit to save the homes of some Detroiters from foreclosure.

Her work on the Flint water crisis led The Detroit News to name Moss a Michiganian of the Year in 2017. She has received numerous other honors, including the Ida Thurtell award from the Detroit branch of the NAACP and the Michigan Bar's Champion of Justice award.

Michigan civil rights leaders say Moss has made a lasting impact through her work.

"At such a critical time in our nation's history the civil rights community desperately needs warriors for justice. Kary Moss is indeed such a warrior," said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP. "She is relentless in her pursuit of fairness and uncompromising in her utilization of the law to defend the least, the forgotten and the disrespected. There is only one direction for her. It is up out and beyond her current reach.

"... We in Detroit will miss her," Anthony said. "I take heart in the fact, she is but a phone call or text message away."

Dawud Walid, the executive director for the Michigan Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Moss' passion for protecting the Constitution is evident in her work.

"We have worked with ACLU-MI under Kary’s leadership for many years on issues relating to law enforcement accountability to prisoners’ rights," Walid said. "We are confident that she will take her passion for the acute problems which we face in Detroit and Flint areas to her new post at ACLU’s national office."

A grandchild of Russian immigrants, Moss said her family's story is part of what inspired her to work for civil rights.

"One of my grandparents came to this country because the Russian army came to his village and was going to conscript all the boys and they left in the middle of the night and  got on a boat and were able to enter this country though Ellis Island,"  she said.

 "I remember how transformative that story was to me that this country could be a beacon of freedom, it could be a place where for people with no hope and whose lives were in danger their lives could be safe, and that's what this country represented to me as a child."

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