Posts Tagged ‘ Day 4 ’
Historian Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, writes from the bus of the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.
Day 4–May 11: Augusta, GA, to Anniston, AL
As we left Augusta, I gave a brief lecture on Augusta’s cultural, political, and racial history–emphasizing several of the region’s most colorful and infamous characters, notably Tom Watson and J. B. Stoner. Then we settled in for the long bus ride from Augusta to Atlanta, a journey that the students soon turned into a musical and creative extravaganza featuring new renditions of freedom songs, original rap songs, a poetry slam–all dedicated to the original Freedom Riders. These kids are quite remarkable.
In Atlanta, our first stop was the King Center, where we were met by Freedom Riders Bernard Lafayette and Charles Person. Bernard gave a fascinating impromptu lecture on the history of the Center and his experiences working with Coretta King. We spent a few minutes at the grave sight and reflecting pool before entering the newly restored Ebenezer Baptist Church. The church was hauntingly beautiful, especially so as we listened to a tape of an MLK sermon and a following hymn. The kids were riveted.
Our next stop was Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, where we were greeted by a large crowd organized by the Georgia Humanities Council. After lunch and my brief keynote address, the gathering, which included 10 Freedom Riders, broke into small groups for hour-long discussions relating the Freedom Rides to contemporary issues. Moving testimonials and a long standing ovation for the Riders punctuated the event. Later in the afternoon, we headed for Alabama and Anniston, taking the old highway, Route 78, just as the CORE Freedom Riders had on Mother’s Day morning, May 14, in 1961. However, unlike 1961’s brutal events, our reception in Anniston, orchestrated by a downown redevelopment group known as the Spirit of Anniston, could not have been more cordial. A large interracial group that included the mayor, city council members, and a black state representative joined us for dinner before accompanying us to the Anniston Public Library for a program highlighted by the viewing of a photography exhibit, “Courage Under Fire.” The May 14, 1961 photographs of Joe Postiglione were searing, and their public display marks a new departure in Anniston, a community that until recently seemed determined to bury the uglier aspects of its past. The whole scene at the library was deeply emotional, almost surreal at times. The climax was a confessional speech by Richard Couch, the son of a Klansman who was part of the bus-burning mob in 1961. When Mr. Couch walked over to Hank Thomas, who was savagely attacked in 1961, to embrace him and ask for forgiveness and reconciliation, there were tears all around. The students and everyone else in the room were stunned. I have never seen anything quite like that moment. Later Mr. Couch and Janie Forsyth McKinney, the 12-year old white girlwho braved the mob in 1961 to come to the Freedom Riders’ aid, joined the students at our hotel for a two-hour deiscussion of race and reconciliation. I would wager that those of us who were in that room will remember the depth of feeling and searching questions and comments of the students for the rest of our lives. Words can’t describe what took place in the hearts and minds of the Freedom Riders, young and old, last night.
By Diana Mahoney
They are like pieces in a complicated jigsaw puzzle. Daily, we try to piece them together in an effort to capture and convey the chaos of emotion racing and swirling through our minds and hearts. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t. People remember them, repeat them, build hopes and dreams around them, get their heart broken by them. Words. In contrast to the strength of emotion behind them, they seem flimsy in comparison. In syllables, we try to capture and convey what lies beneath our surface. Chaining meaning to sounds, trying to transmit hearts brimming with emotions to those around us.
Thank you. Two short words that seem to ring empty and hollow in nearly every situation that demands them. How can the same two words that are used in response to someone holding a door or ringing up your groceries be used interchangeably to express how you felt the time your friend, who had an exam the next morning, spent the night driving you hours to the hospital to see your grandmother the night she died. That’s right, they can’t.
That’s why I was surprised today when those two simple words came to be the rocking moment of my day. Which, if I’m being honest, I’m beginning to get used to. Being caught off guard and shook up daily in the most unexpected moments, by the least likely of people.
It was during the beautiful luncheon put out in Rock Hill, South Carolina where the infamous Friendship Nine Sit-Ins occurred that it happened. The lights had been dimmed and we were halfway through the documentary on Rock Hill that she walked across the room. Young and beautiful, the well-dressed African-American girl bent down and leaned her head in close to Joan Mulholland’s.
“I have to leave early, but I just wanted to come over and say thank you for making this life possible for me.” I watched out of the corner of my eye as Joan reached out and wrapped the young girl in her embrace.
“I love you.” Joan whispered into her hair. I felt my heart skip a beat. It was just such an incredibly beautiful moment. Suddenly it hit me. That this tiny, beautiful woman sitting next to me played a huge part of life as I know it. I gazed around the room at my fellow student riders and thought of the people that have played parts in my life up to this point. At their varying skin tones, of their diverse ideas, of their unique voices, of how much richer my life has become because they are in it. Of how much of this beautiful life I would have missed had this woman and those like her not stepped up and spoke out.
I feel like my “Thank you.” doesn’t cut it. Every time I see these incredibly courageous people, I want to convey how each and every day I am appreciative for the world they sacrificed so much for. The world I was lucky enough to grow up in, thanks to them. But somewhere deep down inside, I know that no matter how many times I say it, those words stand almost as a barrier in conveying the swell of emotion, gratefulness and indebtedness I feel I owe to each and every one of the original Freedom Riders. It is humbling to graciously accept this gift the Freedom Riders have given us. I can’t fit together words to say thank you properly. As the days roll by I find myself more and more in agreement with author Elizabeth Gilbert who reflects that, “In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”
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.
By Raj De
Many of the 1961 Freedom Riders were students, much like me, yet they taught the world about courage, about injustice. Today, a young school teacher spoke to us in Rock Hill, SC and she emphasized that “Students are teachers,” using the Freedom Riders as an example.
Tonight at dinner, I had a fascinating conversation with three of my fellow student riders about how to infuse creativity into the American educational system—divergent learning that encompasses diverse solutions, focusing on civic innovation instead of purely service, understanding of self, and emphasis on valuing each student’s opinion. Feeling no barriers, we bounced ideas off one another and I found myself learning a lot from my fellow students, while adding to the discussion as well. Our model of conversation was even an example of one of our proposed methods of educational reform—exchange of ideas between students, “Students as teachers.” We were practicing what we had heard in Rock Hill, without even realizing it.
Our insistence on positive educational change was particularly special to me because of the work I am doing this summer. I am interning at the Spring Creek Literacy Project, an educational summer camp for middle school girls in the rural mountain community of Madison County, NC, a region where high school graduation rates can run as low as 50%. The project is only a year old and is still very malleable, so I can bring my own ideas to fruition. I left our dinner conversation with concrete ideas to apply within the Spring Creek project and with a renewed energy for social change.
If I could successfully implement some of the ideas we talked about at dinner into the Spring Creek curriculum, the Spring Creek girls would approach learning as integrated with teaching each other, with reflecting, with problem solving, with passion and spirit, without boundaries—“Students as teachers.”
By Bakrom Ismoilov
Tuesday morning, May 10. Embassy Suites Hotel, Charlotte, North Carolina. Joan Mulholland gathered the student riders for a dialogue on Islamophobia that was brought to her attention by the event happened on Friday. Two imams who were headed to Charlotte for a meeting on ‘Islamophobia’ were taken off a commercial flight after the pilot refused to fly with them.
My fellow riders joined for a short roundtable discussion, which was decided to be continuingly discussed during the ride. Being a Muslim student, I was glad that this discussion started, as in my view, it is a growing issue that might have serious consequences.
A specific attention was paid to the influence of the media on people’s perception of the religion of Islam. Do we consider the media as a deceiver of people’s minds that has a political touch to it? Do we see it as a truthful entity that is just and tolerant? Or can we make the media a resource for the civic engagement and educate people properly?
In my opinion media falls into all three categories: it can be an ally, an enemy and a resource. And I do believe in the power of civic engagement in overcoming political interests by love and integrity.
But, how about the institutional education in US? As 15-year-old exchange student in Battle Creek, Michigan, during my American History class, we were asked which is worse, communism or terrorism, after which it was explained to us that Communism was evil and terrorism was an Islamic action. How can we trust what is taught in schools, and how can we change it? I keep replaying the words of Diane Nash in my mind: “The issue that I see in our society is we don’t ask ourselves: WHY is it that I believe in what I believe?”
The 2011 Student Freedom Ride really brought us together for a reason — to be the CHANGE we want to see in our future. And it is of my biggest hope that this conversation will be continued during and after the ride.
Verse 49:13 of the Holy Koran states: “O mankind! We created you from a pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other not that ye may despise each other. “
He spoke of sacrifice. He spoke of love. He spoke of dreams fulfilled. He was Charles Jones, a civil rights activist with the wit to organize and the courage to partake in the mass sit-ins of Charlotte, North Carolina of 1960. In reflection of his highly decorated life, Mr. Jones showed no hesitation in expressing his emotions in their most raw form. He would begin a sentence with a laugh and end with tears, providing me a ticket to the only emotional rollercoaster I have ever been on. In conversation with Mr. Jones, there was an underlying theme of prophetic love of all people despite suffering terrorism by many.
I have often wondered if interspersed within those dreams is the increasing frequency of nightmares. He spoke of love; we practice love of self. He spoke of a dream of the “Beloved Community”; we dream of fancy cars. Mainly he spoke of the sacrifice of himself and many others based upon their vision for us. His words resonated much with Diane Nash’s “we loved you without knowing you.” I wonder if Mr. Jones worries that his accomplishments through sacrifice will be sacrificed by the youth to further their own personal success in life.
Mr. Jones and those who spent years in the trenches drive through the same streets we do. They witness the dilapidated housing, the practice of isolation over inclusion, and the crumbling of our families. Today was a true wake up call for me, one I intend on answering not only for myself, but also in tribute to those before me. I have a bag of quarters to make some calls, at least I know those on the bus will pick up the phone.
By Tariq Meyers
Four walls. Four walls composed of sheet rock, plastered with two coats of paint, graced with plexiglass and topped off with fluorescent lighting beneath images of hate; images of suffering; images with no hope. They call this construction an exhibit. Grade school children and adults alike gaze upon disturbing images but find relief upon exit because the dark images are behind them—the tour goes on. It is convenient to isolate history of pain to a room, easy to believe that bigotry is a thing of the past—that the struggle is over. Museums and exhibits mystify history—presenting it in a way where one is led to believe that what is presented is over. So when one encounters a mob lynching, the death of four little girls, the bullet hole in the windshield of Viola Liuzzo, or the handsome hazel-eyed turned eyeless image of the murdered Emmett Till—one’s anxiety fades knowing the suffering is over; that the fear is isolated between images of hate and fluorescent lighting; beneath layers of paint and plexiglass; beneath sheet rock and concrete.
As I connected to the teary eyes of Ernest Rip Patton, I began to realize that our fifty-year sojourn (in the making), our difference in years, no longer mattered. The man who stood before me was 19-year-old Rip Patton, the courageous hero of 1961. Anxious and afraid, confused and connected as I was, the connection (young) Rip and I shared in the museum exhibit revealed the secret that hides behind museum walls. The secret is that history is very much in the present, that history is very much real. In that moment I came to understand that, though the pictures of the abused and the deceased were isolated on the walls, it did not mean the struggle was over; that the pain was gone—rather is very much underway. I stood there with Rip as we gazed upon the face of the beaten Freedom Rider. This may seem typical of museum activity, but understand why this was so significant: I was staring at the face of a beaten Freedom Rider alongside a Freedom Rider. Yes, together we gazed, (young) Rip and I, at the images isolated to plexiglass and fluorescent lights, beneath concrete and drywall—and it is there that I discovered that the mystified “ghosts” of pain and suffering were just images transplanted on paper with ink of different shades to give the illusion of looking aged and old. Yes, it was at that moment I realized that the secret that hides behind museum walls is a living history, that can’t be isolated to words on a page, ink on a paper. The (young) Rip and I will forever be connected.