Posts Tagged ‘ Day 6 ’
By Tania Smith
Today we left Nashville, Tennessee and headed towards Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham has a very important history in the civil rights movement. It was dubbed “Bombingham” due to the violence perpetrated against its black citizens. The city of Birmingham also had a racist and violent police commissioner by the name of Eugene “Bull” Conner. Conner ran Birmingham as a racist and bigoted police state. Fifty years later, as I entered the city on the 2011 Student Freedom Ride bus, the moment felt surreal.
We visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the 16th Street Baptist Church. Klan members bombed the church in 1963, killing four innocent little girls. Despite its tumultuous past, the 16th Street Baptist Church is a symbol of the past and the hope for the future. I say this because in the evening, we listened to the church’s Carl Reese Memorial Unity Choir sing old songs from the movement, songs that inspired a generation to mobilize, and as a choir member put it, “get out of our seats and into the streets.” It was an inspiring moment— student freedom riders, original Freedom Riders, and people of all races locked arms across the sanctuary and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Tears were flowing; emotions ran high. Despite this progress, the reality is that there is still much work to be done. I hope that one day, maybe 30, 35, or 45 years from now, I’ll be able to look at the future generation, my grandchildren and their grandchildren and say the words “We Have Overcome.”
By Zilong Wang
As one of the few international students on the ride, “representing” the rest of the world’s six billion people, I feel obliged to provide a non-American view on global civic engagement.
The United States pays a lot of attention to diversity, which is commendable. However, the American definition of “diversity” also reflects the typical “American singularity.” Race, gender, class — these are historically specific categories created in a unique context, and might not apply to the rest of the world. For example, racial discourse in America is largely focused on the discrimination of black Americans by whites, but it will be highly misleading to use this black-and-white lens to interpret Africa’s tribal conflicts, India’s linguistic nationalism, Russia’s regional warfare, or China’s ethnic tension.
Over the past few decades, through America’s global dominance, the American view of social justice and civic engagement is projected to (or even forced upon) many parts of the world. However, each country has its own unique situation when it comes to civil rights, social justice, and civic engagement. In many parts of the world, “civil rights” is not even in people’s vocabulary. We should be very aware that the American style of civil rights are extremely historically specific; it has its root in Christianity, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, the Atlantic slave trade, the American Civil War, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, among other contributing factors. When we examine the peculiarity of the American definition of civil rights, we would be confused to reflect upon how American government would want to impose this standard on the rest of the world, even through war and assassination. Isn’t it the greatest violation of human rights to deprive other people of their sovereignty and self-determination? Isn’t it the greatest conceit to assume that all countries should be (and would like to be) just like America? Isn’t it the greatest hypocrisy to say that my expensive wars can bring you peace and freedom? Doesn’t it remind you of “Manifest Destiny” and the “White Man’s Burden”? We know how that turned out.
I am not saying that the rest of the world cannot learn from America’s experience. Quite the contrary, I believe America’s struggles are great lessons for many countries that are about to embark on a similar journey. There is a great deal to be learned from both the success and mistakes of the America Civil Rights Movement. We should study this history carefully, and with great respect. That is why I got on the bus.
Also, we should strive to find common ground among different nations, religions and cultures. We might disagree on what is a good government, but we all believe that corruption is counter-productive. We might disagree on the notion of an “afterlife,” but we all agree that we want to live in peace in this life. We might disagree on what is justice, but we should all be invested in reducing the obvious discrimination. We might have different opinions, but we should all know that we might be wrong. Underneath the differences, we can always find similarities. And these similarities can serve as the beginning of our harmony.
After looking at the past and present, I would like to turn to the future. According the the latest United Nation projection, by the year 2100, there will be 10 billion people on earth, half of which will be living in Asia; a third in Africa. This world population distribution has tremendous relevance to global civil discourse as the world’s attention and power get more equally distributed. The United States population is around 5% of the world, and we could expect that America’s problem will less likely be the world’s most important problem. Instead, the Arab and Muslim populations will increase, and their specific issues will be given more attention by leaders around the world. India’s population is also expanding very rapidly, and Africa will continue to see strong increases as well. The center of gravity for the world media will shift from West to East, and Asia’s and Africa’s social issues will become the most relevant.
These historical shifts are already happening, but most of us are unaware, uninformed (or worse, misinformed), and unprepared. Our decisions and votes will have global repercussions, but we are not educated enough to make informed judgments on events that are happening thousands of miles away, in a foreign language. Most people aren’t even accustomed to using international standards like kilometers and centigrade. If we are going to face the future problems in the world with our old habits and assumptions, we will certainly be frightened by the unfamiliarity. Then we will turn to nationalism, xenophobia and scapegoating for the last bit of self-deception.
So, how should we prepare for the looming shift in our global agenda, not merely in social justice? We can never be fully prepared, but learning a foreign language is not a bad idea. Go study abroad, make friends with people from other countries and of different religions, read international news, and cultivate an open mind and compassionate heart. This might be a good beginning.
By Will Dale
The bus’ wheels are a-turnin’ to the rhythm of our freedom songs. They turn round, round, and round. The bus’ wheels are a-rollin’ down this highway, spreading our mission and the Freedom Ride story. They spin, spin, and spin around. These wheels are constantly turning, turning, and turning – a-takin’ us down South, our destination.
This notion of a destination struck me this morning as we pulled out of Anniston. To me, a destination is the ultimate end and purpose to what we seek to be realized. The original thirteen Freedom Riders’ intended destination was New Orleans, yet they were hindered by the violence they encountered in the Deep South. As a result, their mission evolved from their journey to New Orleans to the start of a movement that challenged social and legal norms in the South.
The belief in a destination is seen throughout the civil rights movement, most commonly conceptualized in the ideas of freedom and justice. Dr. Martin Luther King often spoke of the “Beloved Community” as one of his ultimate destinations. In this “beloved community,” the formerly oppressed seek to reconcile with their former oppressors. This community would be characterized by the ideals of justice, freedom, and unity. Dr. King’s “Beloved Community” has yet to be realized, but that is why the student freedom riders are here.
Over the last few days on the bus, the other student freedom riders and I have had trouble coming up with our own destination. In this destination, we can find our purpose and future, and I think that the current state and future of civic engagement and social activism lies in this search for this destination. I think we can find our mission in the history of our past, our actions in the present, and the events of the future.
For now, we continue towards Nashville and on to New Orleans. We will also carry on our journey towards our own destination, our own purpose. It is impossible to see what impact we will have on the world in five, ten, or fifty years. But if my predictions are right, I know we will keep the wheels of change a-turnin’, a-rollin’, and a-takin’ us towards our own vision of the Beloved Community.
By Davy Knittle
A decade ago, my father and I rented a car, flew to Vancouver, British Columbia and drove east across the width of British Columbia and halfway across Alberta, stopping in Lethbridge before we drove back. In the course of the drive we drove through the Canadian Rockies, and when we descended out of them, the horizon line extended across the sudden and uniformly flat land. The sky got bigger.
Driving away from the East Coast, I’m often aware of the comparative containment of the sky of the Northeast. Throughout the ride, I’ve been waiting for the change in landscape as we get further from D.C. I was stunned by the thick green of the Virginia and North Carolina foliage, and now, closing in on the Tennessee border, the sky does, in fact, feel bigger. The land has been variable and gorgeous. Original Freedom Rider Helen Singleton said yesterday that it’s difficult for her to reconcile the painful history of this landscape with its specific beauty. She said that only now are Americans from outside of the South starting to be able to appreciate the South for its landscape outside of the operation of its history, which itself operates as a barrier between the South and the rest of the country.
She said that the history of racial oppression in the South was a waste of the land (as well as, as she implied, a gross misuse of human life and of basic humanness itself). We’ve seen so many vacant urban blocks on the ride, so much endless suburban space, so much ritualized farmland with small, adjacent houses and other buildings. The physical space of the South is deceptive in that way – if there’s a relationship between what we understand about a place from its landscape and what we understand from its history, the lush quality of the foliage throughout the route of the ride makes it harder, for me, to internalize the history of this land, because it looks like the Northeast, which is what I’m used to, or because it’s so basically beautiful.
I feel about the land of the South the way I feel about America as an entity made up of the interaction of its landscape, its history and its current reality – largely confused, impressed by its beauty, and incredulously unable to reconcile its disparate features. The land of the South feels multiplicitous and deceptive in a way that makes intuitive sense. Even so, it feels enormous and unsolvable to try to fit the history of this landscape into the land itself.
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 6–May 13: Nashville, TN, to Birmingham, AL
Day 6 started with a torrential downpour–the first bad weather of the trip–that prevented us from walking around the Fisk campus and touring Jubilee Hall and the chapel. So we headed south for Birmingham, passing through Giles County, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and by Decatur, AL, the site of the 1932 Scottsboro trial. We arrived in Birmingham in time for lunch at the Alabama Power Company building, a corporate fortress symbolic of the “new” Birmingham. We spent the afternoon at the magnificent Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where we were met by Freedom Riders Jim Zwerg and Catherine Burks Brooks, and by Odessa Woolfolk, the guiding force behind the Institute in its early years. Catherine treated the students to a rollicking memoir of her life in Birmingham, and Odessa followed with a moving account of her years as a teacher in Birmingham and a discussion of the role of women in the civil rights movement. Odessa is always wonderful, but she was particularly warm and humane today. We then went across the street for a tour of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of the September 1963 bombing that killed the “four little girls.”
The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to a tour of the Institute; there is never enough time to do justice to the Institute’s civil rights timeline, but this visit was much too brief, I am afraid. Seeing the Freedom Rider section with the Riders, especially Jim Zwerg and Charles Person who had searing experiences in Birmingham in 1961, was highly emotional for me, for them, and for the students. As soon as the Institute closed, we retired to the community room for a memorable barbecue feast catered byDreamland Barbecue, the best in the business. We then went back across the street to 16th Street for a freedom song concert in the sanctuary. The voices of the Unity Memorial Choir, first formed in 1959 to help boost the morale of the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s local movement, were beautiful, as always. The students were so enthusiastic, clapping rythmically and sometimes singing along, and the movement stories interspersed among the stanzas filled the church with emotion and more than a few tears. The hour-long concert ended with everyone present linking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome.” This was perhaps the most intense experience of the trip for some. Afterwards we spent a few minutes in nearby Kelly Ingram Park, site of the 1963 confrontation between Bull Connor’s attack dogs and the young marchers of the “children’s crusade.” The park now boasts “freedom sculptures” dedicated to the marchers’ courage. Back at the historic Tutwiler Hotel, the students held a 2-hour-long “teach-in,” during which they made presentations on contemporary social justice issues. This was their idea, organized by them. A fitting end to a long and emotional day on the freedom trail.
By Francisco Diaz
Anniston, Alabama. The name has developed a strong notoriety in my consciousness. It conjures up images of angry mobs and violent intolerance. It was the first escalation and first stark expression of raw hatred against the original Freedom Riders, the place that produced the image of a burning Greyhound that has been ubiquitous thru-ought our journey.
Before this trip I would say to my friends, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in the South.” What I had heard of the region conjured up a view of angry, hostile racists lurking around every corner, every southern accent concealing contempt for those they deemed different from them. It’s no surprise, I reasoned, that the current swath of anti-immigrant legislation states are trying to enact across the country are strongest in these former Confederate states.
While I am the first to reiterate that there is still much work to be done, I am now happy to say that my own views were flawed, prejudicial, and incomplete. I say that I’m happy because I have now begun to move past that view.
At dinner I sat next to an Anniston local named Richard Couch. I couldn’t help but think that he was the stereotype of the South that I had developed in my mind, a burly, blue-eyed man with a thick southern drawl, whose father had been a Klansman, one of the mob that had been there on that day of terror in 1961. Richard was also one of the funniest and most sincere men I have met, a public defender who advocates for the poor of Anniston, who was genuinely happy to meet me and an Oakland Raiders fan and general lover of the San Francisco Bay Area to boot.
When Richard Couch gave an impromptu and tearful welcome to Hank Thomas, who had been on that bus the day it was burned and when they embraced, I viewed the full power of nonviolence. The son of a Klansman hugging a man who his father hated and wanted dead was a greater victory than any violent counter-attack that could have been done at the time to the mob had surrounded that bus. If the Freedom Riders had not been nonviolent, and they fought back and perhaps killed Richard Couch’s father, this true moment would not have occurred.
The genuine power of the moment we saw was a brief, luminescent glimpse of the beloved community Mr. Thomas and the other Freedom Riders sought. Where I once saw hate, bigotry and violence, I now see love, understanding and hope. Later on, some of my fellow student riders told me that the comment page in the local newspaper’s website was full of comments about “stirring the race pot” and “unnecessarily bringing up old wounds.” This could have discouraged me, because we have not completely overcome, but I saw the true power of love, and as we continue, no amount of hate and continued ignorance will take that away.
By Michael Tubbs
Anniston, Alabama is an iconic site in the psyche of all those involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Fifty years ago, home grown terrorists slashed the tires and attempted to burn the bus holding the Freedom Riders. Today, we revisited the site of the horrific incident to participate in the grand openings of the photo exhibit and two murals.
In a sense, the movement was defined by that fire. Through those flames, the nation was able to bear witness to the blind bigotry and hatred that consumed far too many. Through those flames, the brave men and women emerged as heroes dedicated to the cause of non-violent direct action and the power of love. Through those flames, my vision of Anniston and civil rights today has been sharpened and borders on being critical.
My experience thus far on the bus has convinced me that reconciliation is a process not a moment. At the dedication of the photo exhibit for the burning bus, the son of one of the mob members hugged a Freedom Rider who was on the bus, welcoming him to the town. Although the moment was special, it was not, as many were calling it, reconciliation. For reconciliation to happen, the present should not bear much resemblance to the social realities of the past. A local woman eloquently echoed these sentiments saying, ” we got this mural after fifty years but we have a long way to go.” In towns nationwide, blacks still face police brutality, inferior education, employment difficulties and a host of other ills.
In many respects the election of the first black president and commerating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides is the beginnining of the long process towards racial reconciliation. Sure moments and memories are nice, but unless we seriously address the racial inequities that plague us in every sphere, fifty years from now our children won’t be able to hold any dedications commemorating the work we did. It’s definitely important to look back and reflect on the past, but it’s more important to collectively turn our gaze to now and the future and frankly engage with the work that still needs to be done.
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.