By Davy Knittle
Yesterday morning, I stood in the basement cafeteria of the United House of Prayer in Charlotte, North Carolina with Tom Hanchett, Staff Historian for the Levine Museum of the New South. I thanked him for coordinating the breakfast with the elders that the Freedom Riders young and old were taking part in. We had been standing on the side of the room, looking out towards the cafeteria that was full of light from the chiefly red and blue stained glass windows on either side, but he turned to me before he next spoke and looked at me directly. He said, in response to my thanking him, that the work that we’re doing is essential because it’s bringing healing to a lot of people, that it’s allowing them to revisit the history of the last 50 years in a way that allows for collective forgiveness and that emphasizes the basic human beauty of everyone who finds, or needs to find, some kind of home in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
Throughout the ride, I’ve been uncertain as to exactly what purpose we’re serving, as student riders. Tonight, in Anniston, Alabama, where a Greyhound bus carrying six of the original CORE Freedom Riders was firebombed and burned on May 14th, 1961, I got off of the bus and was greeted by a member of state government who grabbed my nametag and turned it over so that when she said “Welcome to Anniston,” she greeted me by name. We’ve been saying to each other, on the ride, that each stop, each conversation, each town is singular. Each town, similarly, is in need of a singular sort of healing.
Yesterday, I asked myself “who are we to heal anyone,” but it seems that it is because we’re young and engaged in the process of being engaged that we’re able to bring healing to each place where we stop and reflect and allow ourselves to be received. As it turns out, the physical act of 40 students from different places, experiences and, maybe most importantly, racial backgrounds riding together in the interest of active collectivity is a gesture of healing in and of itself.
It’s a tenuous relationship that we have between what we can offer and the processes that we complete by being present in each place. Our ability to internalize, to observe and to accept the past and present circumstances of each town is essential, so it feels, in that town’s ability to begin to rejoin an American collectivity previously blockaded by that history, to be part of a national decision to move forward by recognizing each person’s comprehensive humanness. In each moment, our job as Student Freedom Riders, is to meet that moment with relentless openness, and our work is to be ambassadors of healing by means of that openness, to let our natural hopefulness extend, and to leave some of it, as a figure of our appreciation for our consistently warm and grateful reception, in each town, and along the roadway where the original Freedom Riders traveled.