50 Years of Freedom (Celebrating the Freedom Riders)

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From May through November 1961, more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives by simply traveling together on buses and trains as they sojourned through the Deep South.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of their journey—the Freedom Rides. Kicking off in Washington, D.C., at the Newseum, the 2011 Student Freedom Ride departed May 8 and is rolling through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and into Louisiana, stopping along the way at historically significant locations. I caught up with the 40 Student Freedom Riders and five of the original Riders—Joan Mulholland, Rip Patton, Robert and Helen Singleton and Charles Person—at the Downtown Public Library in Nashville, Tenn., last week.

Part celebration and part education, the 2011 Freedom Rides re-enact history. Even as Student Riders watch documentaries, read books, make public appearances on “Oprah” and contribute to news coverage, they learn that there remains much to be told about the men and women who risked it all so that we could enjoy the freedom to travel as we please. In 2011, it’s hard to imagine their struggle, courage and commitment.

Rather than isolating the original Riders’ troubled and painful history to fleeting commemorations or to the realms of amnesia and denial, the 2011 Freedom Ride declares precisely the opposite: that history is alive, ongoing and real. So when one encounters someone who witnessed a mob lynching or the deaths of four little girls, someone who sat at a lunch counter where he or she was refused service or molested, or someone who was beaten, arrested and imprisoned for believing in political and social equality, one is confronted with the reality that the suffering isn’t over, that fear and hatred still exist, and that our struggle continues.

As I looked into the tear-filled eyes of Dr. Ernest “Rip” Patton last Thursday, I could no longer deny that the struggle continues or that racism is obvious and intentional discrimination, or claim that it’s been overcome. Hearing him speak to the Student Riders in Nashville about the strength and power we have if we’re committed to change made me realize that differences in gender and generation do not matter. What matters is a desire to imagine new possibilities for the future and a willingness to overcome injustice with good. The man who stood before me was suddenly the 19-year-old Rip Patton, the courageous hero of 1961 who marched in silence to Nashville’s City Hall on April 19 and rode for freedom from Nashville to Mississippi a month later.

But this hero is wounded. His scars were made visible when he confessed that even though “we made history in Nashville, we won’t see history in Nashville.” Sadly, despite the Nashville Freedom Riders’ contributions to the civil rights movement, there are no historical markers here in town. Supporters of a proposed museum on the corner of 8th and Jefferson have yet to break ground because of a lack of funds.

Lack of official acknowledgment is only one wound. Apathy is another. Original and Student Riders alike are out to explode the myth that biannual voting is enough to fulfill our civic duty as Americans. They want to remind us that nothing is guaranteed and that anything is possible—even the reconciliation of a Klan member’s son and the man his father beat brutally in Anniston, Ala., original Rider Hank Thomas.

The deepest wounds are personal, some of which Patton and other Freedom Riders are unable to remember for themselves and thus cannot document for historical records. For instance, Patton said that he can’t remember how he got back from Jackson, Miss., to Nashville. Mulholland said that her cellmate in Parchment Prison has no memory of that experience, or of why the smell of Lysol still gives her the chills. Others can’t remember stretches of time or faces and places. Despite their great success, what the original Riders regret most is that they never had the opportunity to record their experiences in real time or to undergo counseling after the Rides ended.

That’s where the Student Riders come in. The young men and women I met were smart, excited, active and connected. More important, they’re willing and able to document every aspect of their experiences. With Facebook posts, tweets, blogs and vlogs, the Student Riders are banding together to inform civic engagement today, tackling the twin tasks of reconciliation and communication.

Today’s Riders honor the past and contribute to the future by documenting the threats, attacks and jailings their counterparts experienced and updating them with words of gratitude, encouragement and freedom. What’s more, they’re learning what it takes to continue the struggle and address the ongoing challenges of racial and economic equality today.