This week marks the 53rd anniversary of the Freedom Rides, one of the pivotal moments of both the civil rights movement and American history.
Inspired by the sit-ins that had spread across the nation like wildfire the previous year, interracial groups of activists boarded buses and headed down interstate highways to the Deep South in defiance of racial segregation.
The idea was not a new one—the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, had first launched the rides in 1947. But the new rides, and riders, were more ambitious, enduring and bold than the first.
John Lewis, a native of Alabama and member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, who deeply admired Martin Luther King Jr., was among the first volunteers. The night before departing, he participated in a dinner, dubbed the “Last Supper” in honor of the 13 volunteers, where he met a 19-year-old Howard University student named Stokely Carmichael. The two enjoyed an easy camaraderie and would become fast friends.
The next day, May 4, their Greyhound bus was firebombed in Anniston, Ala., producing one of the iconic photographs of the civil rights era. The imagery of buses full of Americans being attacked by mobs of other Americans for exercising their rights of citizenship in the South were broadcast around the world, providing a searing portrait of the face of white supremacy and institutional racism in America.
Between May and November of 1961, more than 400 interracial volunteers embarked on Freedom Rides, triggering the incarceration of movement notables such as Lewis, Carmichael and James Farmer, and forcing a reluctant Kennedy administration into the nation’s unfolding civil rights drama.
While important books and a brilliant documentary have been produced chronicling the period, too many Americans remain unaware of the sacrifices Freedom Riders endured—including vicious beatings, threats, unlawful arrests and incarceration in some of the nation’s worst prisons—in order to transform American democracy.
We need to remember their courage now more than ever. And not simply remember but emulate as well. Some bemoan how the subtlety of contemporary racism, in contrast with Jim Crow’s unapologetic and violent apartheid state, makes the fight against white supremacy elusive. Yet overt signs of brutal racist oppression around the nation abound. While the mainstream media picks on easy targets (hello, Donald Sterling!), hundreds of thousands of black and brown men and women languish in the American gulag, a prison system that is as corrosive as it is corrupt. Public schools in predominantly black neighborhoods are underresourced, with money spent to surveil and criminalize and punish black youths rather than inspire and educate them.
If we gauge the general health and welfare of the black community by examining how the majority of African-American families are living today, then we also know that we are in dire need of re-examining how we measure racial progress since the civil rights era’s high point. The tremendous, well-deserved and hard-fought success of a relatively small number of black Americans has not translated into a communitywide transformation. Perhaps such expectations were naive, considering the nature of American capitalism, yet many harbored those expectations nonetheless.
The Freedom Rides offer a stirring portrait in courage but also a timeless lesson about the widespread impact of community organizing when bold action is taken. Men and women now praised as American heroes were, in many instances, vilified at the time as troublemakers and communists—subversives intent on destroying centuries of tradition. But they remained unbowed and unbroken, devoting their time, putting aside college classes and risking their lives for freedom’s cause.
The tactics and strategies that they used require updating for our own contemporary challenges, but the resilience, courage and tenacity that they displayed in the face of danger remain inspiring to this day. The civil rights saga that Freedom Riders did so much to contribute to continues in our own time, complete with villains and heroes, martyrs and nameless grassroots activists. The responsibility falls on contemporary activists, standing on the shoulders of elders, both living and dead, to utilize the example of the Freedom Riders to forge a movement for racial justice and equality that would make them proud.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and the newly released Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.