Today’s Youth Not Engaged, Say Freedom Riders

Freedom Riders visit the bus station in downtown Montgomery, Ala.
Freedom Riders visit the bus station in downtown Montgomery, Ala.

Written by Krissah Thompson

JACKSON, MISS. — A half-dozen blacks and whites sat with boxed sandwiches and sweet tea in a community center on a recent afternoon, wrestling with what’s changed — and what hasn’t — since the Freedom Riders came to town 50 years ago.


“We’re still trying to see each other as human,” said Albert Sykes, a 28-year-old black man. “We’re still struggling with this.”

On Mother’s Day, 1961, a bus full of young people was firebombed in Anniston, Ala. The passengers were black and white, one of several groups that rode from Washington, D.C., to force the integration of interstate transportation on a reluctant South.

In the following days, other Freedom Riders were arrested by segregationist city leaders here in Jackson and taken to the state penitentiary. Over the next four months, supporters from across the country descended on bus stations, train depots and airports across the South. One wave followed another, a total of 436 people who risked their lives to face down angry mobs and the volatile Ku Klux Klan.

Most of the legal barriers the Riders confronted toppled over in the next few years with the passage of federal civil rights laws — and the willingness of a generation of activists to subject themselves to fire hoses and axe handles. But other, worrisome legacies endure. Many schools have effectively re-segregated, and those who took risks to defeat segregation are disappointed that the current generation seems unwilling or unable to make similar sacrifices.

Sykes is helping organize one of the many tributes this spring to the Freedom Riders, reminders that it was teenagers and young adults who were beaten with broken baseball bats, chains and steel pipes as they attempted to enter “white only” waiting rooms at bus stations.

Some young people have been inspired by those stories. But in the minds of an older generation, they have not always seized the challenge as their elders did.


Read more of this article at The Washington Post.