By Ryan Price
American Experience has truly allowed the 40 of us college students to live through a vital American experience. As I sat Saturday night in the fifth pew in First Baptist Church in Montgomery, I admired the men and women in the four rows ahead of me. In the first row sat some of America’s greatest treasures: the Freedom Riders.
Jim Zwerg, Helen and Bob Singleton, Rip Patton and Joan Mulholland comprised that first row. After spending multiple days with them, I can confidently say that their idealism for America might match that of our founding fathers. These five courageous American citizens have dedicated their lives to forming “a more perfect union,” and still, tirelessly, continue to do so.
In the next three rows sat some of America’s greatest promise: the 2011 Student Freedom Riders. I recognized the back of each of their heads and I can recall each of their stories. Each of their idealistic fires will lead them to invigorate Civic Society (Peter), protect laborers (Meghna), or save the environment (Zilong).
The communal feeling among our five rows was real. As we watched the documentary and celebrated with the original Riders that night, I began to intimately understand the civil rights movement’s ideal of the “Beloved Community.” We were in it.
In our circle, with our brothers and sisters, we could share anything. For example, I have even sung multiple times on this trip despite being diagnosed with stage-five tone-deaf disorder (and only got a little ribbing about it). I may have shattered windows when I belted out “This Little Light of Mine” in New Orleans, but no one in our small family cared.
We have spent the last ten days with Pulitzer Prize winners, an amazing travel agency team, passionate members of the PBS crew, 39 friends and allies, and multiple American heroes. It has been an absolute privilege to live through this American experience. I have no doubt that we will recognize the unparalleled opportunity this ride has afforded us and will honor it by giving back.
It is neither pure coincidence nor justice’s inevitability that enabled the 40 of us diverse students to ride on a bus together in 2011. It was just 50 years ago that justice’s inevitability was in question, when the 40 of us could not simply ride a bus side-by-side. Indeed, justice in 1961 looked like thirteen-year-old Hezekiah Watkins sitting on death row for integrating buses. Just 50 years ago those who “protected and served” did so by granting the Klan 15 minutes of free time to ravage the young nonviolent Freedom Riders.
The forty of us understand this well now. One of the original Freedom Riders looked at us the other night and defined our duty:
“Memorials can not be confined to buildings or artifacts. Memorials must be living. The 40 of you will go out into this world when you’re done here, and whether you know it or not, you will be a memorial to what we did in 1961. You will be walking, living, breathing memorials.”
The responsibility that demands of us is, quite-literally, monumental. If we go on to serve as living memorials to the sacrifices of the Freedom Riders, we will love all of our brothers and sisters, stand firmly for human dignity, and organize to protect constitutional rights. We will also teach our respective communities that one of the best ways to overcome injustice is to laugh at it, as Joan, the Singletons, Rip, and others did in 1961. And I don’t know about the other student riders, but I’ll have freedom songs stuck in my head for another three months. So Des Moines, Iowa, be ready to learn some new music!
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: thank you American Experience for educating and empowering our younger generation. You have enabled diverse friendships while renewing the young idealistic spirit in us that is so central to actualizing the American Dream and the Beloved Community.
The 40 good-looking new monuments across the country will go out into this world as a testament to the value of your education. Take a bow American Experience, and, more importantly, original Freedom Riders ,because your work has earned you the right to do so. Thank you.