The Freedom Rides story seems to me to have been overshadowed by other events taking place in the era of the sixties. But as we highlight ways of letting freedom ring, this piece of history is so important.
At a web site that is themed around empowering books, I cannot imagine a time when people were denied the opportunity to read in a country that was created to inspire hope. In dictatorial governments such actions are taken to hold back resistance. But in the land of the free, how could this happen?
And in our dual sub themes of heart health and financial literacy, I wonder how much talent was squandered in an era where fear and anger sapped the energy and genius from it's own citizens. Those people on the Freedom Rides took on that challenge. As a country, we are better for their courage.
As a forward thinking country we must continue to learn from that history. This page will give you some insight into the Freedom Riders of 1961.
First off, we'll show you "the why." The how is important, but the "why" provides the back drop. The "why" of the Freedom Rides was Jim Crow mentality. But first a quick quiz. Can you name all the vice presidents and all the Supreme Court Justices in American history? No? Keep that in mind as you read this page.
Did you know there really wasn't a "Jim Crow"? This set of laws was named after a character played by a little known actor in the early 1800s. As it became more widely used, the term Jim Crow became a sort of derogatory description of black people.
From this two word slang, the segregation rules set in place following the "reconstruction" period of the civil war were established. Jim Crow laws were really more of a guideline for society, particularly in the southern United States.
Jim Crow mentality was supported by southern ministers and politicians. It was ingrained in the minds of southern white children. But it also was part of an economic fear. Following the reconstruction period, the last thing struggling white business owners wanted was more competition.
If young black children were allowed to learn to read, they could become business leaders. Books do empower, as all of you know. So it was imperative to keep this class of people at an educational disadvantage. Here are a few of the social and in some cases legal Jim Crow rules of order.
* A black man could not offer to shake hands with a white man. This implied equal status and was not accepted.
* White drivers had the right of way at all intersections
* A black person must refer to a white counterpart as Mr. or Mrs. A black person must be called only by first name and never by title.
* Black people were instructed to never demonstrate higher intelligence as it showed up white counterparts.
We all know, (or should know) about segregated bathrooms, transportation options, and even restaurants, but how many realize the not so subtle methods the Jim Crow mentality used to hold back future generations of black children?
Here are a few tactics southern states used to keep black people out of the voting process, even though the Constitution allowed open voting rights at that time.
* Voters must be descendants of people allowed to vote prior to the Civil War.
* Poll taxes were charged to vote. Poorer black people didn't have money for this "right."
* Only Democrats could vote in primaries. And only white people could be Democrats.
* Literacy tests were imposed that required prospective black voters to name every vice president and every Supreme Court justice in American history. Could anyone reading this page pass that test? I couldn't.
How many very bright minds were kept out of the fields of medical research by Jim Crow mentality and ignorant fear? How many potential brilliant leaders were lost during this dark period?
Here in Michigan there is a Jim Crow Museum. It is located at Ferris State University in Big Rapids. It opened with a bit of controversy, but it does serve a useful purpose. When we face up to past mistakes, we attempt to avoid repeating them. We learn from history. This link will give you much more about the Jim Crow era.
James Lawson began his ministerial carer in India on behalf of the Methodist church. He embraced the Gandhi methodology of strict non-violence in working toward worthwhile goals.
He used that training in America beginning in 1959 as he taught students in Nashville Tennessee how to peacefully protest unfair laws and social norms. When he transferred to Vanderbilt University, these classes in professional restraint grew in attendance. His goal was clear.
Jim Crow mentality still held a grip on southern America. It needed to be changed, but the only way that could happen would be the sheer will of the nation. While the Kennedy government recognized this need for change, they were not willing to move it up the agenda level. They were locked in to problems brewing in Cuba and East Germany. The nuclear capability of the former Soviet Union was on the minds of many people.
But at home, there were also problems that needed attention. To fix these challenges, the eyes of Americans needed to be opened to the plight of fellow citizens. James Lawson was a key player in this movement.
His plan was simple. Teach young people, white and black to simply do what should be a very normal thing that every American should be allowed to do. Such as go into a lunch counter and be served. Jim Crow laws didn't allow this to happen. These misguided rules didn't allow free mixed race travel or equal accommodations at bus and train stations.
So the movement began by going to lunch. Except these students were taught how to handle verbal and physical abuse. And they were exposed to both as they began to file into whites only lunch counters. This was the preliminary action for the Freedom Rides. The ground work was being laid.
James Lawson was a master at teaching restraint. He was also very cognizant of appearance and professionalism. And of human nature. We would see his influence in terms of professional appearance on the national mall on August 28th, 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King was the leader for this monumental moment, but James Lawson was a key to that successful day.
His student movement forced changes in Nashville lunch counters. His peaceful boycotts of southern business centers forced the dissolution of non-profitable business practices.. Changes that fit into the very equal laws of free market capitalism. If you don't provide a better product and a competitive price, we won't buy your product.
His most ingenious tactic was using the ignorance and arrogance of segregation supporters against themselves. He gave people such as Bull Conner, a prominent "law enforcement" personality, a nationwide audience. This viewing public saw first hand what the old south wanted to keep quiet.
But first came the treks of the Freedom Rides. James Lawson would take a big role in this effort as well.
The Freedom Rides began as a group of thirteen individuals. Their plan was to ride a bus from Washington D.C. to New Orleans. Today that would seem like an ordinary thing. Certainly not anything worthy of a specific web page.
But the Freedom Riders of 1961 were the reason such a trip is now an ordinary thing. At that time it was so far from mundane. It was dangerous. While legal by federal statutes, it could subject these ordinary bus riders to arrest in certain southern states in America.
Even worse in 1961, it could lead to physical harm from mobs and local "police". These municipal police had no qualms with hiring Klansmen as police officers and in fact often sought them out. Jim Crow laws were sacred in the south at that time.
So this group of whites and blacks began the trek southward. They peacefully went into bus stations. Even the sections still marked as whites only. They sat together, in clear violation of Jim Crow spirit..
James Lawson's non-violence training would soon be needed.
On May 14th, 1961, the first bus was attacked by Klansmen in Anniston Alabama. The bus was set on fire and the mob tried to keep the Freedom Riders trapped in the burning vehicle. This effort failed, but some riders were injured.
Later that evening the second bus of the Freedom Ride arrived at the local bus station. They were set upon by Klansmen and beaten on the bus. So what would you do if that was your son or daughter on that bus? How would you react if it was your Mom trapped in a burning bus?
As that remaining bus reached Birmingham Alabama, they were forced to meet Bull Conner. He was the police commissioner and a devoted segregationist. His mob attacked the riders again. And a watching nation saw the truth. At this point a decision was made to abandon the bus trip to New Orleans.
But by doing so, this non-violent movement would have succumbed to the mob rule. More and more people loaded up in bus after bus to make the same same trip southward. Many were brutally beaten. Many more were arrested.
But a nation began to take notice. And a reluctant Kennedy Administration was forced to move forward. Over time, the "whites only" signs came down. Over time, the segregated restrooms were eliminated. For a book with a much deeper insight check out "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle For Racial Justice." It was written by Raymond Arsenault.
For the most part, the Freedom Rides accomplished their goals. They began the slow, but steady process of wiping out Jim Crow policies. But just as white mobs used long held prejudice to justify attacks on Freedom Riders, both white and black, groups of black gangs used their own bias to inflict damage.
The riots of the late 60's get much more press and are a black eye in American history.
We can however take some pride in steps taken and efforts extended. There is still more to do. But the Freedom Riders of 1961 brought the eyes of a nation on to a major challenge in letting freedom ring.
If any of us are denied basic liberties, we are all at risk. The door can swing both ways. What if it was you that wasn't allowed to sit at a restaurant table? What if you were not allowed to read empowering books?
And I wonder how many brilliant discoveries in the medical field were lost when bright young people were denied an opportunity to offer their gifts to a nation?
How many future leaders were lost. Leaders who could have impressed upon fellow young people that they are not forced to accept entitlement bondage that keeps them from reaching their full potential?
Bu we learn from history. There is another wave of bright young people coming up. Are we leading them to responsibility that goes with freedom? Or are we encouraging them to let the government take care of them?
Are we growing future leaders or flocks of followers?
The Freedom Riders led. We don't need that level of action anymore. But we do need action.