This month many people in our country will celebrate and commemorate the Freedom Riders who set out in the summer of 1961 to change the face of our nation and in doing so left an indelible mark on not only the United States but the world.
Four-hundred young people from California to Massachusetts decided enough was enough and went about changing the rules in the Jim Crow infested south. They were black and white, Christians and Jews, rich and poor. But they had a singular mindset. They were going to challenge the intractable customs, individuals and yes, the way of life in the old Confederacy that seemed to think they could still pick and choose which of the laws of this land they had to abide by.
The protestors went about their work peacefully. They sat quietly on buses that eventually carried them into the lion’s den but they did not shrink from their convictions. As they entered the south they were ordered to the back of the bus but they refused to move. They were beaten but did not stop coming. They came in wave after wave. The violence was shocking to many Americans who could not, or would not comprehend the vile racism that had entrenched itself in the individuals and institutions throughout the south.
As Americans witnessed the barbaric behavior of genteel whites standing side-by-side with rednecks, our collective consciousness was overwhelmed. What was it about these folks that they would risk life and limb to merely sit anywhere they wanted like most others? What was it about the folks who would threaten, harm and deny the simple human rights of another human being simply because of the color of their skin or their political mindset?
We learned a lot about ourselves and our country during those heady times we refer to as the Civil Rights Movement. We learned that we are comfortable in our own skin, in our own existence, in our own little slice of reality until we are forced to see and feel what is really going on all around us.
Americans have had the ability to compartmentalize reality from the beginning. There were those who vehemently argued against revolting from the British Crown. Their lot was obviously comfortable. There were millions of people who turned a blind eye to the injustices and inhumanity of slavery in this country for nearly 300-years. Far too many Americans profited from human bondage and ownership. They allowed business profits to trump human decency.
But the photos, newsreels and reporter’s words were too strong to ignore in 1961. Young people in college, not gang members or low-life’s, but college students from America’s elite institutions were being dragged from buses in the south and thrashed simply because they were obeying the ruling of the United States Supreme Court.
They stood their ground and they changed the course of history.
Those young folks are now senior citizens and one has to wonder as they sit back in their homes enjoying retirement and their Golden Days, how do they feel about a country that seems on the brink of total economic and social unrest? Deep down inside do they still feel like they moved the bar or did they just create a notion, a mirage in this country that has led us down a primrose path? Was it better for African Americans to have the sense of urgency our people felt in 1961 as oppose to the sense of complacency that inundates our communities from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean today?
Was going to jail for a cause a worthy down payment for the million black people imprisoned at the moment? Was the ultimate payoff for being expelled from school and having careers altered the inexcusable high rate of high school dropouts in the black community? Did your fight for equal accommodations in public transportation assist African Americans today access better jobs?
I am certain those brave individuals would not have changed one thing they did. They would have stood up against the injustices again and again.
The question is: What are we doing not just to remember their brave deeds but to demonstrate that same type of empowerment today?
The Freedom Riders put everything they had on the line to fight for millions of individuals they would never know. They were, in fact on a privilege course. They were college students. They could have gone about the business of looking out for themselves and gone on to become professionals and lived a life devoid of the nightmares from their horrific experience running for their lives from a burning bus or being spat upon by some ignorant miscreant or sitting in a Mississippi prison without due process for a month.
We honor those individuals in word, but their extraordinary efforts should be memorialized in deed as well. The spirit of involvement should not be a relic of history it needs to be an ongoing practice.
Who will take a stand against the unjust attack on our public education system? Who will stand up for the poor, the sick and the elderly? When will we utilize the lessons of the past to bring about effective social and economic transformation now? How can the Freedom Riders inspire us to challenge the status quo?
Business profits trumping human decency. That refrain is all too familiar in today’s America.
Now is truly a time to remember the great extraordinary deeds of four hundred young people who changed the course of our nation. Now is the time for our nation to spawn a new generation of individuals who are willing to sacrifice their personal standing for the betterment of us all.