My heroes have always been cowboys, just not the old western type, but the mavericks, the risk takers, the crusaders, the impracticable, the crazy ones, and the seriously politically incorrect. Those who are told over and over again by some authority they are dead wrong, or it is too soon, or people won’t change. Heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, Darwin, Mandela, Churchill, and Orwell. Those who had a messianic belief in something greater than themselves and willing to risk it all to see it done. Those who had the personal power and conviction to lead a movement, to stand up to authority, and to thumb their nose at the government. The courage to challenge the status quo.
One set of heroes, little remembered today, is the 1961 Freedom Riders. The hundreds of young white and black men and women who boarded buses 50 years ago this spring and ventured into the segregated south seeking racial equality. The Supreme Court had twice outlawed segregation in interstate travel yet in the south nothing had changed. There were still colored only sections in the bus stations and restrooms. Once past the Mason-Dixon line, blacks had to get out of their seats and move to the back of the bus, suffering the abject humiliation of second class citizenship.
The first bus with seven blacks and six whites boarded in Washington D.C. and ended in a bloodbath in Birmingham, Alabama. Bull Connor, the infamous Birmingham police chief, told the mob of whites waiting for the bus that they had fifteen minutes to do whatever they wished. “I don’t give a goddamn if you kill them. You got 15 minutes and nobody’s going to get arrested.” The bus arrived in Birmingham on Mother’s Day, May 14, 1961. It was firebombed and a mob armed with chains, bats and hammers descended on the 13 riders.
John Lewis, then a young man now a congressman, was nearly beaten to death and left unconscious on the floor of the station. It would not be his last sacrifice in the name of equality. He led the march on to the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma in 1965, and the Alabama police fractured his skull. How this man survived to be a congressman today is a miracle. President Obama bestowed the 2010 Medal of Freedom on Lewis.
The mobs would pick the whites for the vicious beatings because they saw them as race traitors. Even when members of the first group were savagely beaten and hospitalized it didn’t stop the movement, and many more young kids volunteered to confront racism and racial segregation. They quickly took up the fight, boarded buses, and started on the same trip. Each one of them well aware they were journeying into hell. Imagine the courage of getting on a Greyhound bus and driving into the deeply racist south. We have all seen the video of these confrontations and been deeply affected by them. It was the deep south, pre-integration, a south run by demagogues, racists and brutes, the Bull Connors, the fat necked cigar chomping bigots full of hatred and fear. Fear that their exalted way of life was about to come crashing down. The myth of southern white supremacy. How bad was it? The second wave of freedom riders signed their wills before getting on the bus. Their courage must drive our dedication to stomp out the flickering flames of racism (like birthism) wherever and whenever they flare up. Freedom requires eternal vigilance. It is the least we can do.
For those not hospitalized, many were imprisoned. The federal government made a deal with the devil, Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, that in exchange for police protection for the protestors, he would be allowed to arrest the freedom riders for violating segregation laws, laws that the Supreme Court had ruled were unconstitutional. How could our government ever make such a bargain with the lives of these young people?
And they were not put in low security federal prisons, but places like Parchman prison farm, one of the nation’s worse prisons. Some 300 of the bus riders spent the summer in southern prisons. Their only crime being black and white and riding together on a bus. Their goal had been to ride all the way to New Orleans. Not one made it that far. Most were scarred for life, scars that will never heal, but their courage helped heal a nation.
The bus trips lasted for six months, wave after wave of dedicated men and women, and gave the civil rights movement the momentum it desperately needed. It is a dramatic story of a people seeking social justice. Their legacy is the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It is hard today to imagine those times, but they happened.
“There lived a race of people, of black people, of people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.” Martin Luther King, Jr.