“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” —Nelson Mandela
This summer will mark 60 years since Freedom Riders, adopting pacifist techniques Mohandas Ghandi used in India, challenged segregation on interstate buses in the Deep South that had been ordered to be integrated by the United States Supreme Court. The Freedom Riders decided to continue to challenge the “separate but equal” doctrine that hailed from the Plessy v. Ferguson case that resulted in Jim Crow laws throughout the southern United States. In the late 50s following the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, communities throughout the South continued to practice “separate but equal” in spite of the Supreme Court. In May of 1961, a biracial group of individuals boarded two separate commercial buses to journey from Atlanta to Birmingham. The strategy was for the whites to sit in the back of the bus and the blacks to sit in the front. If challenged, they would refuse to move.
When the buses pulled into Anniston, Alabama and then Birmingham, they were met with angry mobs of white people who viciously attacked the Freedom Riders. The buses were firebombed and the individuals riding them were arrested and thrown into jail. There they went on a hunger strike until the police pulled them from jail and drove them across state lines to Tennessee. But they did not let that stop them. A call was made, the Freedom Riders were picked up, and they tenaciously and courageously went back to Birmingham to continue their journey. Only after then Attorney General Robert Kennedy called U.S. Marshalls and national guard troops did the Freedom Riders make it to Mississippi but that was not before being met by thousands of attackers in Montgomery. A key component of the Freedom Riders’ plan was to create a biracial group of riders to demonstrate solidarity for integration that the Supreme Court had granted, and to raise awareness that civil rights are indeed human rights for all people guaranteed by the Constitution.
The Freedom Riders’ stand for civil rights was part of a massive effort by thousands of individuals who challenged the system through sit-ins at bus stations, department stores and lunch counters as recounted in Eyes on the prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 by Juan Williams. In the book’s introduction, Julian Bond, former chairman of the NAACP and Georgia senator writes, “The story of the civil rights movement is a great testament to the Constitution’s strength… People were willing to go to jail, to fight through the legal system for change, because the Constitution was their ultimate shield… This book reminds us of the great potential we all have as Americans to change our world.”
The month of February is Black History month, a time to recognize the unique contributions of African-American figures and influencers in American history. In Upper School history classes this month, Bill Horine has dedicated time to teach students about this history. They have learned that Black History Month was first observed at Kent State University in 1969 after educators and the Black United Students Organization proposed it. By 1976, Black History Month was celebrated across our country. It is an important observance because for too long Black Americans were ignored in the telling of the story of America. And yet, their contributions cannot be underestimated. When we take time to recognize Black Americans we honor all Americans. We see each other. We honor each other. We embrace freedom together. And as Nelson Mandela said, “we respect and enhance the freedom of others.”