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.