By Davy Knittle
On Friday, Odessa Woolfolk, co-founder and president emerita of the Board of Directors of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute spoke with us about the participation of women in the civil rights movement and about the Children’s March that took place in Birmingham in 1963. Afterwards she took questions and while I usually hold back, I asked Ms. Woolfolk the question that’s been guiding my engagement with the stories of the civil rights movement, and my thoughts about the community-based work of each of the students on the ride over the past several days. I asked her, effectively: “The civil rights movement was guided by a faith-based energy that structured much of the discourse of the movement, even though the movement spanned many different religious and non-religious groups. The centrality of that religious discourse, of the crucial role of religious leaders in the movement and, in particular, the music of those religious communities provided a framework for the movement that helped those engaging in non-violent practices to understand and affirm the basic humanness of both the members of the movement and those who were in opposition. With this in mind, is a religiously-grounded discourse that which is most likely to bring people together now in a way that strengthens their collective engagement with America’s future? Is there another discourse that’s likely to be as effective in terms of unifying individual actors in a way that makes the humanness of all people both the goal and the impetus of collective action?”
Ms. Woolfolk stopped before she answered the question. She looked at me, said something to the effect of the question’s magnitude and the whole room laughed before Ms. Woolfolk said to us what I’ve been wondering about throughout the ride. She spoke to the centrality of religion before saying that the goals of her generation were collectively understood and enormously clear and that our work is necessarily more complicated and more difficult.
It’s been a challenge for myself and, it seems, for many of the other student riders, to take the lessons of the Freedom Rides, and of the civil rights movement more broadly, and to apply them to our current work, however that work constitutes itself. In my own reading of that history, the energy of that movement is still infectious, even if our goals and our approaches are less clearly collectively understood. That question itself: “where does the energy for collective action come from?” grounds itself beautifully in the methods of the Civil Rights Movement. If the work of our lives is to figure out how and where to apply that question, then if being on the ride has clarified that question, if for me, I understand collective work as an spiritually-guided, if not structurally religious process, then, in my understanding, the ride is doing its job.
By Robert Sgrignoli
Today, I reflected on how truly lucky I am to have been chosen for this experience. Not only have I had the opportunity to see the textbook come to life, supplemented by actual testimony of those who created history, but I’ve also had tremendous people surround me along the way. When I had originally touched down in Washington D.C., I never expected to be as fortunate as I have been to gain friends such as these.
Originally, I had thought this trip was only going to pertain to the civil rights movement in 1961, but I have been exposed to an assortment of various issues. Whether it was Francisco and Maricela telling me about the DREAM Act, or Doaa informing me on discrimination against Muslims, I have been blessed to have dialogue with them. Every rider on the bus has their own issue that they are concerned about and I wish I had more time to talk with all of them, but the common factor uniting them is their extraordinary determination to change the world.
I am also eternally grateful for the chance to have people help point out my flaws such as Rachael, Anna, Erica and Sarah showing me my own internalized male-supremacy attitude that has been instilled in me by society. My roommate, Ryan, has widely expanded my knowledge and concern for the LGBT community that I have never noticed before.
I am thankful for the opportunity to have hung out with Crews and Petey, two of the most intellectually stimulating and simultaneously hilarious people I have ever met. Having been able to listen to Charles, Tubbs, and Michellay speak on violence showed nothing less than a genuine passion for empowering the youth and exposing racism in the criminal justice system.
Lily, Davy, and Carla exhibit traits I wish I could obtain; they refuse to fit into a mold that society wishes to impose upon them. I rarely hear peers as articulate as Marshall, Karl, and LeRoy; I’ll be waiting to see them on television running for office. Zilong– this kid asks the deepest questions I have ever heard! JWalk, I appreciate the late-night conversations we shared. Alicia, they coming!
I thank Tania, Raj, Meghna and Esther for making me feel comfortable right away. Baha, Will, and Jason can make anybody laugh and it was much needed on this very emotional trip. Jayanni and Tariq can always be counted on to voice their opinions and produce interesting dialogue. I was happy to see amazing talent in the arts whether it was May and her slam poetry or Jaja and his fluid freestyles.
It was also inspiring to see some of us who have already achieved so much academic success such as Kaitlyn and her acceptance into law school. There were also those I got to know later on in the trip such as JoyEllen and Samantha, bringing their own unique viewpoints and encouraging conversation on a wide assortment of issues. Diana and Stephanie were extremely easy to relate to and were great to interact with.
One of the most real and caring people I have ever met has been Lu-Anne. Talking to her on the bus and seeing her remain humble and genuine has really been a great highlight of the trip. I will put $5 down that we’ll see her on a musical stage someday. Now my main peeps: Lauren and Sara. It has truly been an amazing ride and far surpassed all expectations, and it is all because of their hard work.
One last thanks to everybody involved with the trip, I cannot express my gratitude enough!
By Esther Kim
Was it naïve to think things would have remained superficial on a trip like this? That we could have treaded water for ten days?
In a sleepy haze, on an early morning that has become part of an already blurred memory of this bus ride, I texted those questions to myself.
While my fellow riders spoke to “knowing history to understand our future” in their introduction videos, I shared my interest in what the group dynamic of the students would be while on this revisiting of history.
The lines drawn across identities and communities and the un/conscious reasons why we did or didn’t engage with one another revealed so much about the state of race, gender, class, sexuality, awareness, politics, civic engagement and activism within this generation.
At times I think we collectively recognized the depth and weight of what we were witnessing— in Rock Hill, in Anniston, in New Orleans. You couldn’t escape it if you had wanted to. But how do we connect what we learned about the original Freedom Riders to how we live now? The Freedom Riders worked to challenge the social segregation of the South, and yet the self-segregation on our bus went acknowledged and unaddressed. But is the answer to desegregate, especially in the case of self-segregation? Are these actions merely reflective of the need for community based on more than circumstance?
This experience has challenged my idea of community. It would have been naïve to assume that after ten days on a bus we would magically become a collective. Or maybe this is exactly what a community looks like. Maybe my fellow riders will vehemently disagree with my thoughts but that doesn’t change our shared experience. I reflect on the emotion behind the charged words of Jerome Smith, a leader from the New Orleans Freedom Rides group. His frustration came from his perception of how the New Orleans group was not adequately represented in the recent Freedom Rider recognition. The fact that this history of the Freedom Rides cannot be contained within a two-hour documentary, a 700-page book, or a ten-day bus ride reminds us that we cannot be satisfied with what we are given, and that the movement for truth and justice is never ending; whether or not we can do this as a community, only time will tell.
By Jason McGaughey
I have long felt trapped within the confines of my own mind, fearing that when I open my mouth and expose who I truly am, I will inevitably be rejected. Such anxiety has not been all bad for me though. I think that there is something about experiencing life as an observer that has helped me remove myself from my own lived experience to attempt to understand life from the vantage point of the theoretical “other.” This has given me the freedom to question the most deeply held of all of our national beliefs: that we live in a free and equal society. I can honestly say that I do not believe we truly do.
Would a truly free society have the world’s highest prison population that is based upon a racist justice system? Would a truly free society call a human being illegal for entering this nation to escape systemic problems created by this nation’s corporate interest? Would a truly free society cut the triumphs of workers’ struggle that our ancestors fought so hard for? Would a truly free society push neoliberal trade policies that exploit working people around the world? Would a truly free society continue to ostracize people simply because of their sexual orientation? Would a truly free society continue to waste the world’s natural resources to perpetuate a lifestyle that is killing the planet? Would a truly free society continue to cut funding for the education of our nation’s youth? Would a truly free society continue to pursue an imperial foreign policy that is killing countless people around the world, and to be so inhumane to not even acknowledge how it is based upon hysteria about other religions and cultures? Would a truly free society be able to continue to perpetuate such inequalities, and have the audacity to not even acknowledge how they are based on racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, and homophobia?
The narrative we tell ourselves is built upon illusions. Meaning that we are all too often taught our history through a lens of historical amnesia. We do not recount the whole story of the horror of our past, nor do we remember the full story of how people have come together to collectively fight against oppressive systems throughout that same history. The truth of our history is a duality. By not knowing our past nor recognizing our present, we perpetuate a system that creates and solidifies structural violence and institutionalized racism.
This trip has re-cemented my commitment to the movement. It is all too easy for me to stay quiet, to not speak truth to power, to not plead with others to come to recognize the way in which oppression is built into the very structural fabric of our society. This journey has been an intellectual, spiritual and relational rebirth for me. To learn about the struggles of the past from civil rights heroes in such an intimate manner has been beyond inspirational. Then to have this intimacy coupled and magnified by sharing it with other young activists brought tears to my eyes on multiple occasions. The conversations that I have had with my peers, where we learn and share so deeply with each other our lived experiences of struggle has been nothing short of the foundations of revolutionary theory. We are creating within one another a revolution of values. We are coming to see our unity and how it is through this weapon of togetherness that we will be able to fight back against such a large and terrifying macro system of exploitation. The system is simply too big and too powerful to take on by ourselves. Though, through the higher power of solidarity we can come together as the masses to be able to truly create a nation for, of, and by the people. Only then is there any real hope that we can create a truly free and equal society not built upon systems of exploitation. We must dream big and not loose hope. Without hope we are lost. This trip has helped me regain my sense of hope, and I am grateful for that. Long live the civil rights revolution and the hope that it teaches us all.
By Stephanie Burton
On May 6, I began a journey of self exploration. In ten short days (that’s the power of this trip), I learned to soak up information, to dissect it in agonizing detail and to formulate new ideas, new questions. I’ve asked “how” and “why” several times along the way, becoming so thirsty for knowledge that I HAD to grab a notepad to keep it all together. Back, forth, up, down; the pen would not stop moving! One notepad led to two notepads, and so on and so on.
Now that the trip is over, I’m left with four notepads and a powerful assignment: to find the answers to my scribbling.
Each question stemmed from a conversation that I had with the people who were taking the journey with me—39 other students, members of the press, and the original Freedom Riders. I’m truly thankful for such an eye-opening experience. Thank you to everyone who uttered a word my way; you have left an imprint in my mental psyche forever.
Listed below are my top 11 questions:
1. Why do we give others the privilege of interpreting the bible for us? If we took each phrase in the bible literally, would we all be dead? Are there people out there who live out the principles of the bible word for word?
2. Bless the child that has its own. Why don’t I have an entrepreneurial spirit?
3. Why is yesterday the 1st time that I’ve had a deep, spiritual connection with a person outside of my race?
4. Someone said that the “Save the Children” commercials exploit kids because they find the most poverty-stricken kid to talk on camera, which causes the viewer to make generalizations about the entire impoverished group. But if even ONE kid is living so poorly, isn’t it still important?
5. Does PR have a place in advocacy work? If so, what is the limit?
6. Do introverted people ever make a notable contribution to society… famous introverts?
7. Why does it feel so good to tell your story? And if it’s simply about telling your story, why do we get mad when the paper doesn’t print all of our quotes or everything we said?
8. Am I supporting segregation by going to an HBCU (Historically Black College)? But what is the alternative? What college has diversity all across the board—gender, race, sexual orientation, political affiliation, etc?
9. Why didn’t the International Civil Rights Museum have an exhibit on American Indians’ struggle in the U.S.?
10. Do I have conflicting narratives?
11. When is it okay to label an event a “celebration?” Can we truly “celebrate” a painful event, even if it is 50 years later (the bombing of the bus in Anniston, Alabama)?
By Collis Crews
As we travel towards New Orleans, the intended final destination of original Freedom Riders, I realize that there is still a journey that we must continue. That journey is the struggle to eliminate the racial and social injustice that still persists today. Firsthand exposure to the living historians who traveled with us and visits to many of the key civil rights museums and churches across the South broadened my understanding of all that was sacrificed, and touched my heart in ways I never thought possible. I shed many tears along the way.
The Freedom Riders played a key role in the civil rights movement. If not for these brave men and women, African Americans and other minorities would still be living in segregated societies, suffering the adverse effects of racial oppression. It is troubling to see that, in spite of all the post-segregation gains made by civil rights activists such as the Freedom Riders, many young African Americans have either forgotten or are ignorant of their efforts. This is often demonstrated within our community by the lack of motivation to seek higher education, and failure to exercise civic responsibility due to voter apathy.
Today’s African American youth feel that we do not have anything to fight for, but they are wrong. Spending ten days traveling through history and being exposed to both past and current civil and human rights issues left me certain that there is still much work to do. Unlike our predecessors, we have the advantage of reaching out to millions through use of modern technology. We must act! In some ways our job will be harder because racism and discrimination is more disguised than it was fifty years ago. However, through education, acceptance, and understanding, we can continue the efforts of the Freedom Riders and other civil rights groups who paved the way for our generation. As the new generation, it is our mission to continue the fight and I look forward to applying all that I’ve learned to help bring a positive change to the world.
By Michellay Cole
As this wonderful journey concludes, I want to reflect by answering the question, “So what will you do next?” I felt inspired to write this poetic piece after listening to some of the original Freedom Riders speak with high school students in Mississippi.
I’ve decided that from this day forth, I will dedicate my life to the struggle for civil rights.
From this day forth, I will lead others as I follow God. I will forgive those who threaten the movement towards civil rights for all individuals because I know that my enemy is not any being but that instead, my enemy is any institution that disregards the sanctity of human life.
I’ve decided that from this day forth, I will dedicate my time and energy to telling the stories of those that often go untold. From this day forth, I will not allow laziness, complacency, or mediocrity to dominate my life. I will use my talents to spark change and make a difference in my life and the lives of others because I know that one person, no matter how small, can make a difference.
I’ve decided that from this day forth, I will dedicate my voice to spreading knowledge to those who are deprived of education. From this day forth, I will be the change I would like to see in the world. I will not criticize corrupt or ineffective institutions without offering a better solution because I know that faith without work is dead.
I’ve decided that from this day forth, I will aim to motivate others to also dedicate their lives to the struggle for civil rights. From this day forth, I will not pull up the ladder of success and close the door of opportunities once I accomplish my goals. I will instead lower the ladder and leave the door wide open for the next generation so that they too can accomplish their goals.