Lessons From THE FREEDOM RIDERS

John Lewis and Jim Zwerg after one beating during the 1961 Freedom Rides.

Lessons From THE FREEDOM RIDERS

“I’m a senior at American Baptist Theological Seminary, and hope to graduate in June. I know that education is important, and I hope to get one. But at this time, human dignity is the most important thing in my life. That justice and freedom might come to the Deep South.” John Lewis, Freedom Rider

Have you heard of the Freedom Riders? The young college students who abandoned their studies to ride buses from Washington, D.C. into the deep South, in non-violent protest of segregation in public places? Although I’d heard of them, I didn’t know who they were, or why they were important to our country’s Civil Rights Movement.

Had I slept through that lesson? Or was it another important event from history that had been left out of my history books?

As an experiment, while out to dinner, I polled eight friends, the youngest thirteen, the oldest forty-eight. I asked, “Have you heard of the Freedom Riders?” I even added, “From the sixties.” The responses I received ranged from a movie having to do with “some guy” to a “singer.”  Most didn’t know.  A lesson to me about the importance of taking responsibility for our own education.

And I’d like to share some of what I learned from this documentary.

LESSONS:

  • The Civil Rights Movement was the last thing on the Kennedy Administration’s agenda. The “country’s” main concern in 1961 was the Cold War, which made the Freedom Riders and the issue of civil rights a political inconvenience.
  • John F. Kennedy was voted into office, in large part, by the segregationist South, which explains why the federal government was slow to come to the Freedom Riders’ aid. The mindset was, “Don’t ride into the South. You’ll get killed.”  Not, “Let’s fix what’s morally unjust.”
  • A sobering reminder that the loudest “voice”(constituency) has the power to create, or resist policy, as was the case with the South. Whether segregation was right, or morally wrong was inconsequential.
  • Humiliation is a powerful trigger — it took the U.S. becoming a target of criticism in the eyes of the international community for the federal government to finally step in. How could we profess freedom and democracy outside of the U.S, when we couldn’t even guarantee those same freedoms to blacks in the Deep South?
  • The important role of the Media — the images of the brutal beatings and of one of the buses being set ablaze, with the Freedom Riders trapped on-board, are what horrified a nation that had been shielded from what went on in the South.
  • Martin Luther King declined riding with the Freedom Riders and even tried to dissuade them from riding into Alabama; he believed the violent backlash might set the Civil Rights Movement back.
  • Non-violent protests work, but at great risk to the protestors.

For anybody who hasn’t seen this, a word of caution: no amount of reading or studying can prepare you for the live footage in this documentary.  There’s a big difference between watching a film such as Mississippi Burning and something you know is real.

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

If you watched the FREEDOM RIDERS, what did you think?  Did anything surprise you? More importantly, what will happen to social awareness in our country if key events from history are lost, forgotten, or intentionally buried?

I’ll leave you with this quote to ponder about our legal system, from Diane Nash, a student at Fisk University who became a leader of the movement:

“Traveling the segregated South, for black people, was humiliating. The very fact that there were separate facilities was to say to black people and white people that blacks were so subhuman and so inferior that we could not even use public facilities that white people used. The Supreme Court even said that there was no right that a black person had that white people had to respect.” Diane Nash

 

GUEST WRITER:

Ezzy is a mom, wife and the daughter of Mexican immigrant parents. She loves to read, is the first in her family to attend college, and feels passionately about education, culture and social awareness.  Find her blogging at www.ezzylanguzzi.blogspot.com.

 

 

Comments

  1. says

    I am glad you have chose to shed light on a horrible part of US history that our country’s education system decides to leave out of our children’s history books.  It isn’t pretty but the darkness of this nations history needs to be known by all and not swept under the rug.  The education system is teaching our young children history as they wish it was not how it actually happened, it was an eye opening and sickening experiences when I finally learned the full extent of our nations history after I was grown.  Yes, it is gruesome but it is the truth!

    • says

      Hi Angelique! Thank you for reading and commenting. I believe that the only way for our country to avoid repeating history is to be honest about it. Ignoring it might mute it, but it certainly won't make it go away. We need to take responsibility for educating ourselves and our children. Question everything! Seek alternate perspectives. I'm on it. : D

      • says

        My husband told me years ago he never truly new our history till he attended Howard University in DC a black college.  From him I have learned so much and he seeks the truth so together we have learned even more and educate those who aren't so lucky to find out for themselves.  Totally agree with question everything :)

        • Lailalacy says

          I, too, am a Howard alum, and I totally agree.  It wasn't until I studied there that I truly learned about the history of black people in America and the diaspora. 

  2. says

    I am glad you have chose to shed light on a horrible part of US history that our country's education system decides to leave out of our children's history books.  It isn't pretty but the darkness of this nations history needs to be known by all and not swept under the rug.  The education system is teaching our young children history as they wish it was not how it actually happened, it was an eye opening and sickening experiences when I finally learned the full extent of our nations history after I was grown.  Yes, it is gruesome but it is the truth!

  3. says

    I think many people believe that if they don't talk about something it will be like it never happened. Out of sight, out of mind. But we need to remember. We need to make sure it doesn't happen again. I worry that the new segregationist practices in schools will lead us to repeat this history again, so I truly thank you for sharing this documentary. I will show this in my classroom next year.

    • says

      Jen, thank you for your comment. I'm glad you found the documentary educational. I worry a lot about what's going on in Arizona and other parts of the country where ethnic studies classes are being eliminated in the public schools, specially Latino Studies for "fear" that the coursework elicits negative feelings. To me, this sanitization of history feels like what we did to the Indians when we stripped them of their history. Like you suggested, not talking about events from history that shame us will not make them go away. 

  4. Lailalacy says

    Thank you for doing this piece.  I agree that it is each of our responsibility to educate ourselves about issues of historical significance.  The courage these people showed in the face of terror should be a lesson to all human beings, regardless of color.

    • says

      Laila, thank you. I completely agree with you. I'm grateful to PBS for producing this piece. An important lesson I left off the post is that of the power of the collective human spirit. We can right wrongs, but we first need to love and accept each other. Thank you again for your comment. : )

  5. says

    I watched this a couple of weeks ago.  Very eye opening.  You are so right about us being responsible for our own education!  My husband and I watched it together and it gave me such an unsettling feeling knowing that all of this took place not long ago and without the bravery of these individuals I seriously doubt my mexican husband and I would be married.  Thanks for writing about something so important!

    • says

      Tara, I know. Not so long ago. How could a country founded by people who came here to escape persecution do the same to each other and new comers? Talk about short memories. And you're right, hard to imagine that fifty years ago many of our marriages would have been illegal. We've come a long way, but still have a lot of work to do. Thank you for your comment, amiga.

  6. Rebecca says

    Thank you for posting this.  It is a particularly special post for me.  My mother, white, was a Freedom Rider sent to Parchman Farm at the end of the ride to Jackson, Mississippi, so I did grow up knowing about them and lots of the horrors sanctioned by our government against people of color and poor people in the south and throughout the world and throughout history.  My father is black and grew up in the segregated south were they met and fought for civil rights until I came along and living in safety became more of a priority.  I have two boys who are black, white and Korean (from their biracial father).  I am rearing them as I was reared to be as knowledgeable as possible about the truths of history, but the importance of doing so is never more apparent than when they come home from school having been taught lies about history.  My eight year old was taught that the civil rights marchers were attacked with dogs, bully clubs and firehouses because the police were protecting themselves.  He was taught that Columbus was a hero who was the first man to know that the world was round and to "discover America."  There are lies by omission going on all the time, but the lies by commission are, in my opinion, even more dangerous and damaging to our future.