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.
- 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.
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
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.