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Judy’s Notebook: Civil Rights for the Next Generation

You can find inspiration when you’re not even looking for it.

I was reminded of this Wednesday as I spent time with one of the many groups of young people who flock to Washington during our hot summers. This was a special group: 51 Free Spirit Journalism Scholars, high school students from all over the country who had come to the nation’s capital for a week to learn and to be inspired. The young people are carefully selected from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia to attend an annual conference run by the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press and free speech. The competitive process, named in honor of Forum founder Al Neuharth, saw applications from 600 rising high school seniors.

They’re treated to talks by prominent politicians and journalists and encouraged to ask questions, which they eagerly do. I was fortunate to sit in on a session with three heroes of the Civil Rights movement. I came away impressed with the students, but blown away by the three much older men who played a central role in the Freedom Riders movement, the campaign by civil rights activists in 1961 to ride interstate buses into the South to confront state laws and customs enforcing segregation.

Left to right: John Seigenthaler, Ernest “Rip” Patton, Rep. John Lewis and Judy Woodruff at Wednesday’s panel. Photo courtesy Freedom Forum

They were U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, former musician and community leader Ernest “Rip” Patton and journalist and First Amendment champion John Seigenthaler. Tennessee native Seigenthaler is 84, had an award-winning career at Nashville’s Tennessean newspaper, and later, USA Today, with a detour to the Justice Department under President Kennedy — a job that brought him in direct contact with the movement. Patton and Lewis, who is serving his 13th term in Congress, are both 71. But each brought an energy and spirit that their far younger audience would be challenged to emulate.

All three have spoken in public on hundreds of occasions over the past 50 years, about how the Freedom Rides came to be, how they and others were severely beaten or thrown in jail because of the role they played, and what motivated them to get involved in the first place. But their passion for the subject shows no signs of flagging.

Seigenthaler told of how a courageous young Diane Nash, one of the few women among the Freedom Riders, calmly denied his shouted pleas for the group to give up, since they were facing violent mobs and possible death. Later, Seigenthaler himself was attacked by an angry group of whites in Montgomery, Alabama.

As I listened to Lewis, leaning forward in his chair and speaking with as much fire as he could muster, explaining why he joined the movement over the strong objections of his parents, I could almost see the 21-year-old John Lewis who rode in the front row of a bus that traveled from Washington to segregated interstate bus terminals across the South. In Rock Hill, South Carolina in early May, 1961, Lewis was attacked and beaten bloody by a group of white men. He endured arrests and several more brutal beatings as the opposition grew more violent.

Several people in the audience wiped their eyes as Lewis described how one of the men who had beaten him in South Carolina came to his office on Capitol Hill a few years ago to ask his forgiveness. Lewis said, “I hugged him and his grown son, and the three of us cried.”

Photo courtesy: Freedom Forum

When one of the Free Spirit winners asked Lewis what advice he would give their generation, he urged them to “take up your pens, write about what is wrong.” He suggested today’s younger generation is “too quiet” and encouraged them to speak up where they see injustice.

His fellow Freedom Rider “Rip” Patton asked the students to ask themselves: “What are you willing to do for future generations?” He said, “We did what we did for your generation; what sacrifice are you willing to make?”

The country has changed for the better, all three men agreed, but Lewis noted that any injustice toward a person just because he or she is “different” because of sexual orientation or nationality should not be tolerated. “We are all human,” he said, including immigrant children who didn’t ask to be born here, and he pleaded with the students to fight for legislation that would provide them an education and help them become citizens.

If just a handful of these 51 young men and women return to their communities and follow up by taking action against injustice, or for whatever cause they view as important, it will honor the message of these three speakers. Not just because they were heroes long ago in the 1960s, but because they continue to tell their story, over and over again, to people of all ages, to anyone who will listen. Because of them, because they don’t tire of talking about it, the movement lives on.

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