By Jason McGaughey
For most of my life I have wrestled with deconstructing my own sense of history. I have understood since I was a child that the brutal systems of oppression that have been historically implemented and maintained were and are imposed upon my fellow human beings by oppressors who look like me. What does it mean to be proud of your history even after you have come to this realization? As a white male, this question has been very difficult for me to come to terms with. The only answer that I have is that I can say that I am proud of my history because I understand that not everyone who looked like me was part of the systems of oppression. There have always been those who look like me who have fought against injustice.
The number of whites who fought against injustice may not have been huge, but it means that the magnitude of their courage is only that much more valiant. This trip has provided me with the opportunity to speak with two such heroes.
Jim Zwerg was one of the original Nashville Freedom Riders. A white student at Fisk, he came to participate in the demonstrations and volunteered to risk his life by traveling into the Deep South, challenging Jim Crow laws in bus and train stations. He was brutally beaten during this process by white supremacists, but still managed to hang on to the principles of nonviolence and not give in to hate. To shake his hand and hear from him about the principles that have guided him, moved me to my core.
I also had the privilege to experience this entire journey with Joan Mulholland, a woman from the South who challenged social norms to stand up for justice during the sit-ins, and joined the Freedom Rides during the call to fill the jails of Mississippi. She spent time in Parchman Prison for her convictions, and has held strong to her beliefs on equality and justice.
White people who dared to stand up against such seemingly unbreakable systems of exploitation, and who maintained faith in the power of transformation, are truly inspiring to me. As a young person coated with white skin, I take heart in their triumphs and tribulations.
I have hope that in my generation that there will be more and more white people like Jim and Joan who come to awaken from their slumber. It is long past time for society to call for an end to white privilege and end to systems of oppression. I have hope that one day, I likely will not live to see it, this nation will finally end systems of exploitation. I have hope that one day white people will stop perpetuating systemic racism and will discard racial injustice. It is high time that justice reigns true, and stories from the heroes of the past give me hope that more people who look like me will challenge the system and become heroes for future generations, bringing them hope and pride that we can rise above and destroy oppression. The movement lives on and I take courage in the tales of the past and strength in their legacy. They give me hope to face the obstacles in my own life that I will face as I continue their fight against oppression and for justice.