Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Riding For Freedom

It was on this day half a century ago that the "Freedom Riders," civil rights activists of all races and faiths, embarked on bus rides into the segregated American South.

The intention was to test the Supreme Court's decision the previous year in the Boynton v. Virginia case. The details of that case are not all that important; what is important is that the ruling essentially declared that segregation in public transportation was against the law.

I am no legal scholar, and someone who remembers those times might have a different take on it, but I always felt that ruling was not intended to be a social statement — well, not entirely. I felt it was mostly about the conduct of business.

It was made within the context of interstate travel, but it wound up having a much broader application to American life.

Segregation in places like waiting rooms and diners that served buses with passengers who crossed state lines was a violation of a mid–1950s ruling by the Interstate Commerce Commission. The ICC had not been enforcing its ruling, though, and Boynton v. Virginia was the Court's way of telling the ICC to clean up its act.

(It is also important to note, I think, that the majority opinion was written by Justice Hugo Black, an FDR appointee who is considered one of the most influential justices of all time. For a short time in his youth, Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan — apparently, for much the same reason as the late Sen. Robert Byrd.)

Civil rights activists saw an opportunity to draw attention to their cause, and they set out on the "Freedom Rides," starting on this day 50 years ago.

They drew a lot more than attention. The reactions in the South were violent, brutal. I grew up in the South, and there are many things about this region of which I am proud. But its history in racial relations is not one of them.

Later this month, when PBS broadcasts a documentary on the Freedom Riders, I presume you can see archival footage of burning buses and passengers who were savagely beaten by mobs in the Deep South.

(If you don't want to wait nearly two weeks until PBS shows its documentary, NPR has posted photographs from LIFE magazine.)

The footage I have seen is horrific enough. I can only imagine how terrifying it must have been to witness in person.

The destination of the original Freedom Riders was New Orleans, but, as Katy Reckdahl writes for the New Orleans Times–Picayune, they didn't get that far.

However, they inspired a movement that involved more than 400 Freedom Riders on more than 60 excursions into the South in 1961.

Angela Tuck writes, in the Atlanta Journal–Constitution, that the Freedom Rides still resonate with us in the early 21st century.

It is interesting to note the ways that some people are observing the 50th anniversary.

Last week, Aaron Barnhart of McClatchy Newspapers drew a distinction between this anniversary and the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War.

Civil rights leaders whose names were hardly household words at the time, much less today, have been reminiscing about their experiences.

So have folks who were, for all intents and purposes, participants in, not facilitators of, the rides.

PBS has chosen some college students — from Virginia, Georgia, Utah, Kansas City, all over — to re–trace the footsteps of those original Freedom Riders for an American Experience program.

And, as Gail Kerr points out for Nashville's The Tennessean, the Freedom Rides have other implications today.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Freedom Rides played a significant role in accelerating the momentum of civil rights in America.

And, although I am not proud of chapters of my native region's history, I am proud of the lessons we learned and the progress we made because of them.

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