By William Dale
A spark. That’s all it takes. It takes a spark to start a bus, ignite a movement, to produce change. In the blazing summer of 1961, the Freedom Riders started that ignition, becoming a vehicle that drove the U.S. Civil Rights Movement to audiences across the world. Their mission: to fight segregation in inter-state travel in the deepest, darkest parts of the Deep South.
The Freedom Riders were extraordinary, ordinary people that faced extreme adversity and hardship. Over the past two days in D.C., I have met so many of these brave and heroic people. One rider, in particular, has been my hero ever since I learned of the Freedom Riders’ struggle. Her name is Diane Nash.
In our conversation with Nash, she explained Gandhi’s principles of non-violence. “Truth, love, and self-suffering…” she explained. “These principles were the basis of the Freedom Rides.” The journey towards truth is essential in the fight for freedom and justice, Nash said, and the search for truth influenced every decision she made during the summer of 1961. Nash’s second principle of love lays out the core of the non-violent movement. She loved her fellow riders, and she cared for their white, southern attackers. Nash cared for them so much that she wanted them to right their wrongs and carry out peace.
But it is the final principle of self-suffering that stuck out to me the most. The Freedom Riders were attacked by mobs, and their buses were firebombed. They risked their lives and signed their last will and testaments before “getting on the bus.” News of the treacherous rides traveled across the world, shining a spotlight onto the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
Their dedication to the cause, however, makes me wonder if my generation has this same passion and commitment. I have never seen my peers physically fighting off their oppressors. I have never run for my life off of a burning bus, and I am not risking my life by posting my opinion on this blog. Things have changed.
Fifty years after the original Rides, the state of social activism and civic engagement has evolved, primarily through the social media boom. Engagement and social media are two streams that constantly intersect. You can connect to millions of people on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. The traditional activist is now fighting for change and justice on the web. Two questions, however, still bother me: “How will this change in activism affect the basic principles of truth, love, and self-suffering? Would our generation be able to ‘get on the bus?” These are the questions I hope to find answers to on the Student Freedom Ride, and in these answers, I hope to find my inspiration to ignite a new “spark.”