By Peter Davis
We have been asked many times throughout this trip about what the Freedom Riders can teach us about how to increase civic engagement among young people today. The simple answer one could give is that we can appropriate the methods of civic action that the Freedom Riders had utilized. One thinks: “they partook in non-violent direct action through dramatic confrontations with unjust systems…thus we should look for unjust systems and dramatically and directly confront them.”
It’s not that simple though. The Freedom Riders were facing a problem that was perfectly susceptible to direct action and protest— it was a mostly binary policy choice (stay segregated or integrate; don’t allow someone to be served at a lunch counter or do, have “whites only” signs or not), and it was in need of drama and ‘urgency’ behind it to get the Federal Government to act. Today, many of our great problems are not binary policy choices— we do not have a defined, clear system to overthrow, we cannot easily envision a world where the problem is solved.
Rather, we have a set of problems that need solving. A majority of Americans think we need to roll back global warming, but the question is how— cap and trade or carbon tax? A majority of Americans think we need to fix our schools, but the question is how— charter schools, more funding, more testing or more teacher training? A majority of Americans think we need a better health care system, but the question is how— single payer, co-ops, public option, or individual mandates? It’s hard to have non-violent, direct action to demand “a way to develop a green energy system,” because we do not know yet what to demand— should it be more wind power, more nuclear, or more ethanol? Indeed, as my fellow rider, Francisco Diaz put it, “It’s harder to protest for laws that aren’t there yet.”
Thus, if one comes out of this experience thinking that if I could only get more people protesting like the Freedom Riders against the problems of our time, I think he or she would be misguided. There are many strings on the harp of democratic expression: voting, running for office, writing letters to the editor, brainstorming ideas, forming publicly-interested businesses, watch-dogging, social entrepreneurship, deliberating, institution building, educating, rallying and much more. If we only play the string of protest, we will not be able to solve the great problems of our times— problems that might just need less non-violent direct action and more civic creativity and entrepreneurialism, more institution building, and more non-violent direct legislative lobbying.
What is to be learned from the Freedom Riders, then, if not their methods? As I have said throughout this trip— we need to draw from their civic spirit, their relentless tenacity, and their understanding of what progressive struggle truly means. Indeed, the Freedom Riders understood that groups of unelected citizens committed to public action were the real movers of American government and society. With that understanding, they organized and took action— meticulously, courageously and without violence. I want our generation to have the same progressive, energetic civic spirit that the Freedom Riders embodied. We may have different injustices to fight now than we did in 1961 – and we may use different tools to fight them – but the spirit of movement solidarity, of organizational creativity and of civic courage that the Freedom Rides captured is no doubt the same spirit needed by civic fighters today.