Freedom Riders remind us of racism
Mediaculture: Reflections on the effect of media and culture on our faithby Gordon Houser
How quickly we forget our nation’s experience around racism! A good reminder of where we’ve been and the price many have paid along the way appeared on TV in May.
“Freedom Riders,” shown on PBS stations and available at pbs.org, is a powerful film that recounts the experiences of courageous men and women who risked their lives for simply traveling together on buses and trains as they journeyed through the Deep South in 1961.
From May until November that year, more than 400 black and white Americans rode on buses and trains, deliberately violating Jim Crow laws. These Freedom Riders—a name they gave themselves—met with bitter racism and mob violence along the way, yet remained committed to their belief in nonviolent activism.
The two-hour documentary is based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. The film includes interviews with many of the riders, plus others involved in the events, including John Patterson, governor of Alabama at the time, and John Seigenthaler, an assistant to Robert F. Kennedy, attorney general at the time.
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized the rides, which occurred after the U.S. Supreme Court had mandated the desegregation of interstate travel facilities.
The newly inaugurated Kennedy administration was focused on the Cold War at the time and tried to ignore civil rights issues. Headlines about the mob violence against the riders appeared in Europe, where Kennedy was traveling on his way to meet with Kruschev, the Soviet premier. These events forced Kennedy to address the problem.
Klansmen in Alabama set fire to the original Freedom Ride bus, which only inspired others to get on another bus. In Montgomery, Ala., a mob attacked the riders when they—black and white —got off to use segregated restrooms or eat together.
Meanwhile, the police looked on and waited to intervene until some riders were beaten so bad they had to be rushed to the hospital. Then the police arrested the riders, not those committing the violence.
Kennedy chided the governor, urging him to act in protecting the riders. On camera, Patterson told the interviewer that he told his secretary to tell Kennedy he wasn’t available.
Eventually, Alabama authorities escorted the riders’ buses to the Mississippi state line. Mississippi officials used the tactic of locking up the riders and sending them to the notorious Parchman State Penitentiary.
Instead of discouraging the movement, more riders traveled to Jackson, Miss., to be arrested. Their tactic was to fill the prison with their numbers. More than 300 were arrested. The movement made front-page news across the country, and eventually they were set free.
Watching this powerful documentary left me with several impressions. An obvious one is the courage of the freedom riders and their commitment to nonviolent resistance to injustice. I asked myself, Am I willing to stand up as courageously against injustice?
Another impression, also obvious, was how blatantly racist many practices, if not laws, were then. How could those people react so violently to people simply riding a bus together or wanting to eat together at the same table? The answer is fear. They feared the loss of their privilege.
This raised a further question to me: What racist practices am I upholding, afraid to lose my privileges as a white person?
Gordon Houser is associate editor of The Mennonite.
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