By Samantha Williams
As a kid growing up in a traditional Christian church, there was nothing unordinary about singing hymns every Sunday morning and more often than not, up to three times a week. We were singin’ fools. I knew the songs by heart and it became part of my culture and lifestyle.
When I began researching more information about the Freedom Riders, I found that music was an important part of both the Ride itself and the African American community. On the first day of the trip, original Riders Rip Patton and Bernard Lafayette, Jr. led us in a freedom song. I had never heard of such a thing before.
“Buses are a comin’, oh yeah. Buses are a comin’, oh yeah. Buses are a comin’, buses are a comin’, buses are a comin’, oh yeah.” We sang these words with the original Riders, a surreal experience to say the least. They explained to us that singing helped them cope with the emotionally draining circumstances. When the Riders were jailed for breaking segregation laws, they would sing in their cells until they could sing no more. When the prison guard would tell them to keep quiet and threaten to punish them, they would sing louder.
A few minutes after our song began, we had added lines like, “They can take my mattress” and eventually, “They can take my toothbrush.” Lafayette, however, had to stop and inform us that when it got to this point they had to remind one another that there were upwards of 20 people in a cell fit for four. Singing with their mouths barely open was the solution they agreed upon. Whatever it took to retain even the smallest ounce of dignity and pride.
Then, when I viewed Stanley Nelson’s documentary on the Freedom Rides, I heard a familiar tune. “Hallelujah, I’m a travelin’. Hallelujah, ain’t it fine? Hallelujah, I’m a-travelin’ down freedom’s main line.” It sounded familiar. Where had I heard this melody before? My mind traced the tune all the way back to childhood when at church, I would sing the lyrics, “Hallelujah! Thine the glory. Hallelujah! Amen. Hallelujah! Thine the glory. Revive us again.” The Riders tweaked the lyrics to fit their experience.
There was something very powerful in knowing that a song I sang as a small kid had been sung decades before by people I consider heroes. Songs that got them through one of the most dangerous events of their lives, got me through my own struggles. In a strange way, it connected us. It was almost as if a symbolic torch was being passed to 39 other students and myself. In a moment, their past met my present.