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Day 9: Nine

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

By Diana Mahoney

They still take my breath away. I thought that by now, I’d have become immune, desensitized, overexposed. Day after day, wandering through galleries, hearing stories, gazing at blatantly honest photographs. Mangled human bodies, bloody beatings and people bent over, sobs wracking their entire frame.

I can’t understand the Rwandan Genocide. Or the Holocaust. Or the Klu Klux Klan. Stories like that of Emmett Till, haunting, chipping away at my desire to believe in the goodness of humanity. Glossy photographs of brutal police beating based on skin tone, shattered glass reflecting the bloodied face of Jim Peck, black and white film reels capturing forever the cruelty we as human beings are indeed capable of.

Once upon a time, in what would come to be remembered as one of the most horrific moments of humanity, a young girl scribbled out a sentence which would come to be remembered and repeated for decades.

“Despite everything, I believe that people really are good at heart.” Anne Frank’s infamous quote echoes through the Holocaust and into the years following. With hints of naivety and hope, she voices an idea that I can’t help secretly, yet desperately wanting to believe is true. And then I switch on the television. Or pick up the newspaper. Child soldiers. Human trafficking. Domestic violence. Inhumanity so beyond my comprehension, so polar opposite to the world both Anne and I want to believe in.

Sitting in the dark church, watching the Freedom Riders documentary for a second time, I feel my breath catch. Because I’ve met these people, ate with these people, laughed with these people, received hugs from these people. No longer are they simply characters in a story that inspires me. Flesh, blood, memories, families and stories… they’re real.

Photographs flash across the screen of people armed with clubs and hate, and images of people I shared heaping plates of steaming spaghetti with mere hours ago. I suck in my breath and try to make out their facial expressions in the dark room, try to comprehend how people can commit these atrocities against other human beings.

Later that night, after trading in the business casual look for t-shirts and gym shorts, a few of us sprawl out on one of the large hotel beds. One in the morning seems the ideal time to discuss Communism, Eminem, and reoccurring dreams.

“In Chinese culture, the perfect number is nine. Because if you reach ten, you’ve peaked, it’s a downward slope from there. Thus, nine is the perfect number because it means that there is room for growth,” Zilong, an exchange student from China, explains.

Nine. It’s the reason that each and every one of the forty of us have gotten on this bus. Nine gives us hope, that there is still space left to make a difference, space to grow. Nine hints at possibility, reminding us that we still have new heights to reach, something to strive for. That amidst all the horrific things that have been and that are, a space is created. A space full of hope, full of possibility. An avenue for humanity to begin picking up the broken pieces and begin piecing them together in a step towards redemption.

“It’s not a safe space, it’s a brave space… step up and step out.” said someone in our group as we sat around on tiny, multi-colored plastic chairs during a discussion on race. I couldn’t agree more. The world isn’t a safe space.

Be brave. I find myself repeating it back to myself constantly. I can’t understand the inhumanity, the violence. And perhaps, in some way, I’m not meant to. Nine. There’s still work to be done, risks to be taken, people worth believing in, potential. Nine. We haven’t peaked yet.

Day 9: Maricela Aguilar

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Day 8: Injustice Has Evolved. Have We?

Monday, May 16th, 2011

By Zilong Wang

Fifty years ago, injustices were very visible in this country. We saw our neighbors and friends suffering from discrimination; we could identify the Ku Klux Klan by their funny costumes. The racial discrimination was so violent and outrageous that people had no choice but to stand up for their dignity. Fifty years later, injustice has evolved: it has become nearly invisible and harder to fight than ever before.

Injustice has become invisible because our society is getting more complex. Today’s “bad guys” can achieve their self-interests without stepping outside of their offices, and without spilling one drop of blood. They can be as friendly as you could imagine, but they steal your money, abuse your tax money, cause worldwide economic damage, control your food supply, pollute your environment, and make you believe that you can’t live without them. This is more than “white-collar crime,” this is the global injustice in its 21st century incarnation.

Fifty years ago, Americans could go on the street and protest; they could clearly identify the evil and propose solution: desegregate schools, buses and lunch counters, for example. Today, it becomes very hard to even identify the evil, let alone fight it. For example, the 2008 financial crisis has caused trillions of dollars of damage, and has destroyed the livelihood of millions of families around the world. But even today, not many people fully understand the cause of the crisis, and we couldn’t effectively identify the criminals or provide solutions. The BP oil spill is another example. How can we protest BP’s crime against nature? Should we go demonstrate in the middle of the gulf, or in Washington, or on Wall Street, or in front of the multiple international headquarters of BP?

Due to the complexity of our system and the invisibility of the criminals, it has become harder and harder to identify the problems, locate the bad guys, and improve the situation. The only way to understand the system is to study it, and usually it would require a college degree to be even literate in the political and financial circle. Sometimes, it takes more than one PhD to fully understand why the system is broken.

However, by the time our young students get their multiple degrees, they are usually hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. In order to pay off the student loans, they can’t afford to fight the system. They have to join the system and take the highest paying job from Wall Street or from multinational corporations. It seems like our education system is designed to make sure that by the time a student understands the system, she/he can no longer afford to challenge the system. The commercialization of education system has surrendered a generation of youth into the hands of the powerful money. By the time students have gained the knowledge, they have lost the freedom.

Today’s social inequality is more severe than ever before, but it might take an economic and political double PhD to understand the system and to provide useful advice. Injustice is hiding in fancy offices and underneath expensive suits and ties. Street protests are no longer effective enough to bring positive change. Is the fight against injustice getting harder? Should today’s youth be depressed because we are facing formidable enemies?

No, not at all. As injustice has evolved over the past fifty years, so has the fight against injustice. Today’s youth is standing on the shoulders of previous generations. We have more powerful tools like the Internet. We face less physical hardship and violence. We are indeed facing unheard-of challenges and evil, but each generation faces a similar situation. Each generation of youth has to solve new problems and come up with new ideas. We are no more or less empowered than anyone else. We will use our wisdom and will to identify the problems and provide solutions. Aim high!

Day 8: Jayanni Webster

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Day 9: In Remembrance of Fear, and of Courage

Monday, May 16th, 2011

By Sarah Cheshire

We walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge two-by-two, in silence. It is a tranquil Sunday morning—the water rumbles underneath us, the sun has just begun to permeate the thin layer of clouds above, and a gentle breeze ripples the Spanish moss dangling from the trees. In about an hour, the city streets will begin to swell with people, mingling and filing into the churches. But now, the sounds of the city are gentle and muted. It is hard to believe that 46 years ago, at this spot, on a Sunday like today, rows of silent marchers were confronted by uniformed men on horseback, flaunting clubs and bearing teargas.

When the only human sounds I hear are the cars purring past and the thud-thud-thud of our footfalls, hitting the pavement almost in unison, itʼs hard to imagine the cries of the marchers as they retreated into the sanctuary of the church, bruised and battered and bloodied.

Last night, I was talking to an elderly woman while waiting in line for the bathroom at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, where in May of 1961, a mob of angry klansmen threatened a group of peacefully assembled church goers and Freedom Riders. The womanʼs husband was in the church that night. She was at home down the street with their newborn baby. “I thought I was gonna lose him right then and there,” the woman said of her husband. “Iʼll tell you, I was so scared.”

Being at First Baptist on a blue-skied day, laughing and conversing with friends from every background, nationality, and cultural context, itʼs hard to imagine that kind of fear.

At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, in a dimly lit room containing the carcass of a greyhound bus and footage of the original Freedom Riders, I see an interview with Jim Zwerg, the Freedom Rider who, in that city in 1961, volunteered to be the first to step off of the bus in and into the hands of an irate mob. In the video, he is lying on a hospital bed, his face gaunt against the white pillow, bearing the marks of a brutal beating. I look behind me and see the real Jim Zwerg, who has joined us for the day.

“Were you afraid?” I ask him. “No,” he says, “no. I knew I was going to die.”

When my own fights have been subtle, and my actions removed from the immediacy of the issues at stake, itʼs hard to imagine this kind of courage.

There is an aura of peace to these places— the churches we visit, the bridges we cross, the back roads we travel down. At the surface, all seems to be at rest. The beatings, the slurs, the fear, the courage, seem unfathomable, like they occurred at a time and a place so detached from the present. But if I listen hard enough, I can hear whispers of the past— faint, like a gust of wind or a muted footfall.

At the 16th Street Baptist Church, where 43 years ago, on a Sunday like today, a klan bomb killed four young girls as they were changing in the bathroom for service, we listen as the Carleton Reese Memorial Unity Choir sings songs about freedom, clapping their hands together and swaying back and forth.

Carved into the base of the offering table, I notice the strong yet subtle words:

This do in remembrance of me.

Day 9: Davy Knittle

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Day 8: Our Noun > Our Adjectives

Monday, May 16th, 2011

By Ryan Price

So we continue to travel through many small towns and big cities, practically to the fanfare of trumpets. The cameras come out, filming. The citizens show up, smiling. The mayors are present, handshaking. The museums and universities are great places for us students to learn and grow, while these receptions are often great times for communities to heal.

Here’s the tension I feel though: the original Freedom Riders wouldn’t have behaved as perfectly as we do. As they traveled through these cities, they would have asked things to the tune of: “We’re really happy that our brothers and sisters, black and white, can ride buses together now. But how do you treat migrant workers? Do the children in your high school still viciously bully their gay peers? Do the members of your community paint all peaceful Muslims with the wide, inaccurate and phobic brush of terrorist?”

There’s nothing revolutionary in 2011, thank God, about different races riding buses together. Just fifty years ago, it was revolutionary. Today though the notion of segregation seems laughable. The lesson we learn from the Freedom Rides isn’t that we reached racial justice in the 1960s. No, the lesson we learn as students is that for us to make positive social change, we shouldn’t constantly behave so prudishly, properly and politely (which our generation tends to do).

It would have been rude for me to ask a leader in Tennessee, “Well I’m glad you’ve generously made room for black citizens in the front of buses. But what are you doing about the outlandishly high suicide rate among your LGBT youth? And while you answer that, how does your state do on housing discrimination?” Yet those questions need asking. Speaking truth to power – that’s the best way we could renew the spirit of the Freedom Riders.

What boggles my mind the most in the realm of social justice is this: our complete inability to unite against oppression. One famous civil rights icon told us several days ago that, “Illegal immigration is the worst thing to happen to the black community.” As she continued, the explanation sounded too much like “Hispanics are bad for blacks” for me to be remotely comfortable with it.

Nor can I begin to fathom explanations for the rampant homophobia present among some racial minorities. We have learned of the response to integration fifty years ago where segregationists said, “If God wanted races to mix, he would’ve made them mixed.” Yet, certain minority men and women barely notice the irony when they label homosexuals “unnatural.”

Our sisters couldn’t even cast a vote in the United States until relatively recently, yet they had no problem shouting, “kill them niggers” in Montgomery fifty years ago. Some women have no problem calling gays a threat to the family, when arguments leveled against women’s suffrage just ninety years ago centered on the demise of the family that suffrage would inevitably bring.

How did we become so confused as a society? If I were to write a personal social justice manifesto, it would be this: All of our varied and beautiful adjectives (black, white; skinny, fat; straight, gay; man, woman; poor, wealthy, and on) are nothing compared to our shared noun: human. To fully realize the American Dream, and live up to America’s promises, we must focus on the noun we share while showing greater respect for the adjectives that we don’t.

Day 8: Samantha Williams

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Day 9: The Storytelling of Trust

Monday, May 16th, 2011

By Rajlakshmi De

Tell me a story, from the heart.

We stopped in Selma, Alabama today and heard from Mrs. O’Neill, a community member who was active during the civil rights era. The first few minutes of our session with her were very formal and factual, but as we progressed, Mrs. O’Neill answered our questions with increasing insight. The more trust we built, the deeper she delved.

The economic situation is bleak, she said. Races have segregated into separate churches, separate schools. Being ostracized is a concern.

I was really moved by her descriptions of present-day disparities, and was also compelled by how her openness was such an integral component of our understanding of Selma.

How often are we open and honest about the current state of situations? How much are we withholding?

When I think of poverty, I don’t think of a statistic. I think of the frail men who cart me around in rikshas, tensing their leg muscles as they peddle me along, so that I may pay them less than a dollar’s worth of currency. I think of how tempting it is to overpay them. I also think of how that would do little to reduce systemic poverty.

When I think of girls’ empowerment, I don’t think of the illiteracy rate or the prevalence of HIV. I think of stories—of gender roles, of oppressive environments, of strong women.

If society is not engaged in world affairs, in civics, in the future, maybe we could all benefit from more genuine conversations, more storytelling from the heart. I am hopeful that we can make progress, but we need a reason to care.

Day 9: Rachael DeMarce

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Freedom Riders Poster Series

Monday, May 16th, 2011

I am thankful for Jake Andrews, a graphic design student, artist, and friend at The University of Alabama, for creating this poster series about the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.

Jake and I have collaborated on a variety of projects over the past four years, so when I decided to start a blog for the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, he was the obvious choice to create a header. We briefly talked about the purpose of the blog, and then he went to work.

When I saw his work a few days later, my jaw dropped. He had managed to capture the spirit of the trip through design. He offered to design other pieces for the trip, so I took him up on it.

This series is his creation. His own words describe the power of the series:

I used the key words that you wanted and highlighted the routes that the Freedom Riders took. I used a map of all the routes that Freedom Riders took during the period… not the one specific to the first route though.

It’s kind of hard to explain the concept that I came up with in words. It’s something you’ll just have to see. The individual posters might be a little confusing at first, but when you put them all together they complete the image of the routes of the Freedom Riders in the 60s.

I think the key to the series is not focusing on individual posters as much as how the series is completed once all the posters are put together.

Our hope is that you will share these with your friends & family. Please use this series to connect others with the spirit of the Freedom Riders from 1961 to 2011!

Marshall Houston

Day 8: Kaitlyn Whiteside

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Day 8: Civil Rights Movement Still in Motion

Monday, May 16th, 2011

By Doaa Dorgham

As I sit here on this Greyhound bus, in the exact location where the original Freedom Riders were greeted with pure hatred, flames, and beatings, I feel as though I have been hit with a whirlwind of indescribable emotion. Today the scene was entirely different from the one fifty years ago. We were greeted with cameras, smiles, and a sign that recognized the atrocity that took place in Anniston, Alabama.

Although I was experiencing such painstaking raw emotion, celebration was the last thing that was plaguing my heart. Although the Freedom Riders made magnificent strides, I grapple with the façade that we as a country no longer live with discrimination and are free of internal hatred.

In the shuffle of media, congressmen, and student riders, I got off the bus and stepped on the very ground of heroes and foes. I then realized one of the youngest original Riders, Charles Person, remained on the bus. The moment that we shared together was one that I will never forget. As I sat next to him, I was immediately drawn to his eyes, which were filled with tears that were unable to surface. As we began to reflect, I was able to see the pureness of such an admirable soul.

I struggled to find the right words to explain my gratitude. The words “thank you” are not enough to honor someone who risked his life for change. He spoke to me about the love he had in his heart and how amidst an angry mob threatening his life he never felt hatred, simply love. It was in that moment that I adopted a new philosophy of life.

The idea of love is something that is so glamorized in our society, that it has lost context. Love to me is something that represents sheer strength. Pure love is found in forgiveness and reconciliation. Pure love is so extraordinarily rare, that it is no surprise that the Freedom Riders were able to use that emotion to conquer the abhorrence ingrained in the doctrine of segregation. He then turned to me and told me that it is up to me, and this generation, to continue the civil rights movement, because it is far from over.

It was at the moment that I vowed to myself, that I will attempt to live my life with this idea of pure love, and use that raw emotion to administer change. There is so much hatred, bigotry, anger and discrimination in this world, but I refuse to feed into that commonality. The problem with this generation is this idea of apathy. But when young adults are able to interact with older generations, who believe in us full-heartedly, the idea that we cannot administer change is quickly dissolved. The words “thank you” are not enough to honor these incredible heroes, but continuing their legacy by adamantly moving forward is a start.

Day 8: Collis Crews

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Day 8: Anna Nutter

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Day 8: We Could Be the Devil, and We Already Are

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

By Zilong Wang

As we travel through the southern states in America, we are greeted with the famous southern hospitality. We are almost surprised by the warm welcome in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, etc. At the same time of being thankful to people’s niceness, I can’t help thinking: how could these people be the same mob that had ruthlessly beaten the Freedom Riders and burned buses in 1961, not to mention the lynchings and the whole institution of racial crime? In the end, the Southerners are also people who love their families and care about their children. How could this love be translated into cruelty and hatred to some other people?

To answer this question, let us fast forward our clock by 50 years. Now we all think of ourselves as pretty nice people, but this is what our grandchildren will ask us in the year 2061: “Grandpa, how could you have damaged our earth so badly fifty years ago, and leave me with no choice and no future? How could you have allowed your government to kill so many people in countries far, far away in name of democracy? Don’t you know that every time you fill the gas tank of your SUV, you are overdrafting our energy future, and fueling your car with the blood of thousands of soldiers and millions of innocent people in the Middle East?” In fifty years, our grandchildren will look at our life and society in 2011 with shock and disgust: shocked by our consumerism and indifference to the environment, disgusted by our self-righteousness and inaction. Our grandchildren will ask, “Grandpa, how come you did nothing to help despite the repeated warnings from so many people?”

Faced with our grandchildren’s questions, what will be our answer? Will we regret, will we be shamed? Are we going to be the devil that we are condemning now? Are we already the devil that we are trying to fight?