On the Sidelines of History

Three days ago, on Thursday, a violent storm through my town knocked loose a branch from a tree in my back yard.  This limb fell on a wire that leads to my house, pulling it loose from the house.  The strain of that wire hanging in the air snapped one of the wires in the bundle.  That wire was my cable source.

I was gone all day Friday with my mother for her surgical procedure then babysitting my ‘nephews’ while their mother was at her schools’ graduations.  Saturday was my Father’s Day celebration out of town, so today, Sunday, is really the first chance I’ve been at home with nothing on TV to watch for the afternoon.

I realize this should be a blessing, and an opportunity to clean my house.  But after the week that I have had (working 40 hours in three days, volunteering for a golf tournament, and then the aforementioned Friday and Saturday activities), about all I was able to manage after church and a few hours at the playground with the same nephews was to veg out on the couch.  So I’m going through old items on the Tivo.

There are movies that I had recorded, some almost two years ago, and am now able to watch because the ‘new’ stuff is not recording.  One of the shows that I have been meaning to watch and never had the time was The Freedom Riders: An American Experience.

I was a triple major in college.  One of my majors was American History.  I even focused on the history of the South.  I was aware of Jim Crow laws.  I remember my elder family members speaking of them, though not often.  I remember my mother talking about desegregation of her schools, and how that was a huge upheaval here in Virginia.  I had heard of the Freedom Riders.

It’s oh so humbling to say, but here is the basic truth: I am ashamed.  I am ashamed that I would answer, when asked, that yes I knew about the Freedom Riders.  I knew that blacks and whites rode the bus together.

I am ashamed because I knew nothing.
I would have said that Rosa Parks was a part of the Freedom Riders.  I would have said that the Freedom Riders were peaceful, and that black and white alike were able to ride the bus through the deep south.  I would have said that shortly after all Jim Crow laws were repealed and that black and white got sit at the same lunch counter, ride the same car of the train, use the same restroom, and sit side by side at the movies.

How could I have been so wrong?

This was a documentary done by PBS.  It is, I am assuming, an accurate presentation of the Freedom Rides of 1961 through Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.  It has first person testimony of the people who participated, those that have studied it, those that were a descendent of a participant, those that were newsmakers and politicians and witnesses of the event.  It has archived newspaper, video, and photographs from the time of the events.  So I am going to go with what was put forth in the documentary as truth, and not rely on my own past teachings and knowledge.

Granted, there were many mornings where I was sleepy.  Where I skipped a class or two.  But to not truly understand what was a major event in our history is shameful, and I am properly chastised.

I started watching and was only halfway interested.  It focused on people who were some of the first Freedom Riders and their backstory, then what happened to them as they moved south.  But when they got to Alabama, specifically Birmingham and Montgomery, I was flabbergasted.  These people were attacked, and not in a good way.  People would meet the bus with penknives, bats, pipes, pitchforks.  Set the bus on fire with the Riders still inside.  Beat the reporters who were there to do their job.  And at the full knowledge of both local and state government.  Montgomery had 300 men attacking 21 Riders while women holding small children watched from across the road and cheered the men on.

And now I am ashamed for my gender.  I am ashamed for my race.

I know it was a different time, and for that I am willing to offer a modicum of forgiveness.  But what I cannot abide is the hatred that infested the souls of these people.  I may not like things or someone, but I cannot understand how people fester that level of hatred for a being they know nothing about nor do they have any quarrels against.

The beatings did not stop after multiple issues in Alabama.  As the Riders rode further south into Mississippi, known to be the worst hanging state of the Southern race haters, the fear escalated.  They were assured by the governor that as long as they abided by the rules of Mississippi, nothing would happen to them.  He even, unbeknownst to the Riders, told all white people to stay at home.  When the Riders arrived at the bus station and went to sit in the Whites Only area, the police arrested them for not obeying the (twice federally mandated as illegal) state law.  And they were not taken to jail, but to a heavy duty work prison.  Forced to atone for their disobedience.  Which only encouraged the movement to send more people to Mississippi, who were also arrested.  So more went.  And more were arrested.  And then on and on.  Sleeping eight people in a cell with no beds that was only designed for two.  Hard labor.   And yet more and more came.

Finally, Robert Kennedy went to the ICC to have all segregation laws on transit systems and their depots repealed.  It did not happen immediately, but it did occur.  Which led to the end of the Rides, as there was success.  But you know what really struck me as I watched this?  Peace.  The Riders did not once lift a finger against their attacker.  Did not once fight back.  Even tried to get people to stop helping as they were afraid for the safety of the locals.  They were prepared for all circumstances.  Signed a Last Will and Testament prior to getting on the bus.  Knew that they were not welcome, that they were not going to be returning any time soon, and that there was a possibility that they might not return at all.  That they stood a greater possibility of injury and abuse than of reaching their destination.  They bought tickets, filed into a bus, took a seat, and took a ride.

And changed the course of history.

The documentary made a point of stating that the reason the Freedom Rides worked was for this very reason–the peace.  That it would not have worked had it been a violent protest, that it would not have worked if they fought back.  Just people getting a bus ticket, and taking a ride.  Over and over.  And the simplicity of it, the beauty in the nonviolent protest, of blacks believing they were due the future they were worthy of, and whites believed the same–that all were entitled to the same rights and freedoms–is what made it work.  A simple objective, riding from point A to point B, and peace.

You constantly hear of how the current topic du jour of gay rights is equal to the struggles of blacks from the civil rights movement.  How can we continue to say this?  I’ve always thought this was hokum, as you cannot always tell, simply by looking at people side by side, which is gay and which is not.  Not true for the movement fifty years ago–put a black person next to a white person, and unless you’re blind you should be able to tell which is which.  There is no ambiguity or hiding or evasive option when looking at skin versus trying to determine sexuality just by looking.  That’s not to say that gay rights in 2013 is not as important as the civil rights movement of the 1960s, I just think it’s a different thing.  One which I believe is long overdue, one which I believe is a fundamental right for all individuals, and one which I support, but I just have a hard time comparing it to the race wars of old.

I have truly enjoyed my life and opportunities as one born in the 70s and a devoted product of the 80s.  When I was in high school, the passions I felt strongly about were homelessness and Apartheid.  I volunteered at fundraisers and lens drives for Habitat for Humanity.  I tried to get others involved.  I was a card-carrying member of Amnesty International, and followed the progress of Apartheid in South Africa with zeal.  After all, I thought, the United States had overcome its prejudicial thoughts towards blacks/slavery a hundred years prior, so it was time for the rest of the world to do the same.  (Evidently I am also a bit of an idealist as an adult.)  As an adult, I no longer have the passion for ’causes’ that I did as a child.  I still volunteer, sure, but only a few times a year.  I’ve supported Special Olympics.  That aforementioned golf tournament?  Largest annual fund-raiser for Prevent Blindness.  I have fed the homeless at CARITAS.  (Congregations Around Richmond Interacting To Assure Shelter.)  I think that the Fan Free Clinic, which offers free health care and AIDS education to those in the city, is the greatest charity in my hometown.  But what I truly feel as I end my fourth decade on earth is that I have been blessed and given more opportunity and abundance than I need, and that others not as fortunate deserve a second chance.  I prefer to donate my energy and surplus to those that are just starting out or those just starting over, be it donations of time, money, or possessions that I have no need for.

I would, however, like to think that had I been an adult in 1961 (as opposed to my parents who were just on the verge of teenhood), I would have felt the desire to get to Tennessee in order to ride a bus to Mississippi.  I would like to think that I would not have been a product of my grandparents generation and their small country heritage where racism was the norm.  I would like to think that the lessons of my generation, reaching adulthood at the birth of the civil rights movement, would have been formative enough that I would have been willing to stand up for what was right.  Willing to say that I thought every human deserved a place to sit at the table.  A place to sit while traveling.  A place at my home table.  I would like to think that I would have not been apathetic, that I would have had the passion and understanding and confidence to make a small difference at that crossroads in our nation’s history.

I would like to think that I would have bought a bus ticket, and gone for a ride.

One thought on “On the Sidelines of History

  1. Pingback: Did I Know? Did I Even Have a Clue? – Hokie Thoughts

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