By Ryan Price
Today I laughed often, sweated gallons and wept openly.
Whether it was John Walker’s (better known as JWalk) ridiculous story of his mountain-top coal mining protest or laughing with Joan Mulholland at her pride in going to jail, humor pervaded the day.
The offhand jokes all day on the bus, coupled with the way the original Riders resisted with humor 50 years ago brought levity to a heavy day. Amid learning of their struggles and oppression, they taught us the real power of laughter. Hell, if the jailer is going to take your toothbrush for singing, keep singing at ‘em. Just don’t open your mouth as wide.
Early this afternoon, the laughter gave way quickly in the stifling heat. There are few words we dread hearing on the bus more than, “The air conditioning is out”. I might even prefer, “We got a flat” or “The lavatory is out of order.” The heat quickly shot up to over 90 degrees while the sweat beaded down our faces during our intense workout, sitting.
The joyful ruckus of debate, discussion and laughter was for the first time silent in the heat of the mid-afternoon. For the first time, our condition was similar in one way to that of the original Freedom Riders. We were still safe, at ease and in the company of friends. All of us could sit wherever we wanted on the interstate bus without fear of retribution. But for the first time, the trip wasn’t entirely comfortable.
The heat already set my nerves on end. I felt short tempered as I packed and unpacked my bag on the bus. Imagine the confluence of variables the original Riders faced- environmental heat, the heat of oppression, social ostracism, threats of violence and death. It all made me think- if we can barely handle the heat, how could we ever measure up to them? What we realized after the Civil Rights Museum, quite explicitly, is that we can’t.
It’s been at least a year since I last wept openly, but I have no shame over the tears I tasted today.
In solemn silence our tour group entered “The Hall of Shame” in the International Civil Rights Museum.
We were greeted with the image of a burnt human soul on the ground in front of a sea of happy faces. A burnt black body lied dead amidst the crowds of the happy faces.
This was followed by the image of two men hanging from a tree, their once healthy bodies clearly beaten by clubs before their hanging. The tour guide explained lynching, forgetting that the image in front of us was a more vivid definition than she could ever hope to give.
The tour guide then moved on, and the thick silence was interrupted as Rip Patton (original rider) cleared his throat, “Hey,”
The group paused and guide said, “Yes?”
“Hey, wait,” he said, clearly choking up.
We all waited eerily as the strongest, most respected man in the room gathered his ability to speak. Moments turned to seconds as the air thickened.
“There was a lynching in December of 2010, December. That’s all.”
The Civil Rights Movement needs no dramatization or hyperbole. An accurate look at American History, taking away the revisionist celebrations as we travel through these states, clearly reveals our own capacity for evil.
The Civil Rights Movement was a peaceful response of human dignity against the violent machines of human evil, and the stories of those two hanging men, Emmett Till, Viola Gregg Liuzo and the other victims I learned of today testify to it.
That’s where I shed my first tear.
If we could gather even a fraction of the courage these past idols had to stand up for civil and human rights, just a fraction of it, we will be able to move mountains.
As Bamidele Demerson, the director of the museum said when we entered, “We’re hoping that this generation, the generation of today, can take us even further than the original freedom riders.”
Through laughter, sweat and even tears, let’s move mountains.