I missed the original Freedom Rides—too young by an inch, too unaware by a mile. But their story summoned me south last May when I heard about PBS’s historic reenactment of the audacious 1961 Freedom Rides on their fiftieth anniversary. The project would follow the original route from Washington D.C. through Atlanta, Anniston, Montgomery, and Jackson to New Orleans with forty college students from across the country. I felt I had to be part of it somehow. The prospect of their journey prompted me to reflect about my involvement as a Christian minister in the Civil Rights Movement since its height, and about what contribution our students today could make.
This contribution could start simply with a pilgrimage to Montgomery, like the one I took in May to attend anniversary events there and to see, first-hand, sites of the second American Revolution. Montgomery was the city where the Freedom Riders encountered a violent reception at the Greyhound terminal and where Martin Luther King, in his first pastorate only five years earlier, became involved in the bus boycott started by Rosa Parks.
What had begun in Montgomery in 1956 climaxed with the Freedom Rides in 1961. They were followed by the “children’s crusade” in Birmingham, Alabama, between 1961 and 1963. This opened the way for the biggest leap forward for African Americans since the Emancipation Proclamation itself—in 1964, Congress finally passed the Voting Rights Act, and in 1965, the Civil Rights Act. So Montgomery is symbolic of the critical inception of student involvement in the mid-century Civil Rights Movement.
It all ignited in Montgomery. Within months after moving from Boston to Montgomery with his wife and baby, on a night when forty death threats poured in, King reconciled himself to his ultimate fate. He recounted later that, in his kitchen at 2 a.m. that sleepless night, he suddenly felt God affirm him in the dangerous vocation of fighting for others.
I was standing in that very kitchen while a tour guide from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage played a tape recording of King’s moving account of that “conversion” experience. Youngsters crowded into that humble space with me and my wife that afternoon—all of them African American school children—and looked at the floor while we listened to King’s familiar, quietly urgent voice with its characteristic quaver as he told his personal story. The mortal significance of the moment I am sure was not wasted on them—the students came away a little shaken, having witnessed the spiritual turning point of modern American history. But would his commitment to non-violence win them over finally?
The city of Montgomery commemorated the Freedom Rides anniversary that week by dedicating the Greyhound station as a civil rights museum and hosting a riveting talk given at the Rosa Parks Museum by Jim Zwerg, a white student who participated as a Freedom Rider.
Now in his 70s, Zwerg had enrolled at the traditionally black Fisk University in Nashville for a year as a visiting student from Beloit College in Wisconsin. Zwerg attended Fisk to experience what it was like being a minority, and instantly became a passionate advocate on behalf of black civil rights. He spoke of hearing his mother say on the phone that his decision to join the rides “would kill” his father, and indeed so it would transpire, to Zwerg’s lifelong regret. Zwerg himself was nearly killed and was hospitalized for five days as one of two students seriously injured when a white mob ambushed them at the bus terminal. The other was John Lewis, then a Nashville seminary student who was to become a distinguished African American congressional representative from Georgia. Sobering as it must have been to write out and sign their last will and testaments before boarding the bus, those courageous students nevertheless heeded the call to Montgomery.
It certainly would be tempting for Northerners to harbor a self-righteous satisfaction in contemplating the South’s backward racial ways if it were not for the realization that things were just as tough for African Americans in the North then, and that, today, the progress made seems to have completely stalled, there being no mass movements urging further reform. Instead, lives heavily burdened by racial discrimination quietly go on. On many college campuses, for instance, including my own, African-Americans and other students of color experience not-so-benign neglect and sometimes outright harassment. What intervention have we devised for this and the many, many other instances across the country? Where have the feelings of outrage gone?
Amidst all the injustices against African Americans that abound in this country, Congress has not been able—or willing—to find any handle by which to shut discrimination off or at least stem the flow. After all, where are the pressure points? Changing behavior, difficult as that has been, is easier than changing attitudes. King was taken from us, and with him went not just the political momentum to change our laws but, most importantly, the spiritual leadership needed to change our hearts. Race and all the other flashpoints around human equality are fundamentally spiritual issues, and King’s work was really a ministry to the heart of a nation. While he was fighting along with many others to change discriminatory laws, he was also educating us about a spiritual path, a life that promised the ultimate kind of freedom for a society: freedom from hatred.
Eliminating the residues of deep racial prejudice and its effects in our twenty-first century will be no easy matter. Unemployment among black males stands today at 19 percent, and the percentage of blacks in prison in relation to all incarcerated males stands at 44 percent. These horrific numbers, and the implications for families and for our whole society, demand that the white power structure look hard at itself (which is, if not impossible, at least uncomfortable and difficult, judging from the latest failed Hollywood attempt in The Help).
So, just how dedicated are we to the proposition that all people are created equal in the eyes of a democratic society—and of God? Where are today’s freedom riders to be found? Who is there to challenge the laws and change the hearts of people today?
One example can be found right in Montgomery, at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Overt, verbal racism in the South is passé, but the persistence there and everywhere in the U.S. of hate crimes and hate organizations aimed at people of color necessitates that someone fight them with the law. Morris Dees is such a fighter, a University of Alabama School of Law graduate who founded this organization in 1971 to apply a full-court press against institutional racism. Having just defeated Georgia’s new anti-immigrant legislation, the SPLC will be taking on Alabama’s version of the same law next, among other cases.
Their work stirs up the old prejudices and emotions. Outside the Center, where Maya Lin’s beautiful Civil Rights Memorial commemorates forty martyrs for the cause who died between 1954 and 1968, visitors must pass a security guard conspicuously posted at the entrance. And to get to the interactive displays, classrooms, auditorium and offices inside, we had to undergo a thorough security check. The building is surrounded by a high-tech security fence. It seems freedom is as dangerous a business now as it was when the original Freedom Riders set out fifty years ago.
Fortunately, examples of contemporary freedom riders sacrificing their comfort and reputations can be found in many places in our country at a professional level. People like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright would have been one of them, before he retired, and the journalists Derrick Z. Jackson (Boston Globe), Charles Blow (NY Times), and Tavis Smiley, author of Covenant with Black America. “Facing History and Ourselves” does education on sensitive racial issues across the country (and world). The Office of Equal Opportunity in our Justice Department under President Obama certainly continues important anti-discriminatory work. Gutsiest of all perhaps are the members of Operation Ceasefire on Chicago’s Southside who intervene where street violence breaks out in their neighborhoods. They were the subject of a PBS documentary called “The Interrupters.”
What remains to be learned is how we can promote the same spirit of justice-seeking more widely in our society, especially among our student populations. There are no calls for dramatic interventions like the Freedom Rides anymore—only calls to anniversary observances like the one I answered to Montgomery last May. These and other commemorations have provided some catharsis—for instance, Oprah once brought many of the Freedom Riders together for a huge TV audience—but no renewals of commitment that I heard.
And now, as we pass forward through the many 150th anniversary observances of our Civil War history and, simultaneously, the fiftieth anniversary observances of various Civil Rights events up to the 1968 assassination of King, what calls to action will we hear? Will the new King Memorial, dedicated on the mall in Washington, D.C., on August 28, point us back in time, or forward? At the very least, the question King asked in the title of his last book must be asked again, and answered—“Where do we go from here: chaos or community?” Maybe that’s why the countenance on King’s statue is so stern that causes widespread perplexity among visitors there.
What would it take to recruit students for a movement to build community, as King dreamed? They would, I believe, have to be persuaded to regard politics as a religious vocation and learn to practice it as such, with the kind of compassion and respect for others that divinity requires. It means students would have to “get religion,” which may seem unlikely. But perhaps we should be promoting religious conversion, not to a particular religion, but to civic engagement as a spiritual practice. Danielle E. Allen of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton says, “The problem of interracial distrust in the United States is a symptom of a more general problem of citizenship.” Our democracy, she argues, needs people to be dedicated to “a citizenship of trust-building,” which begins not at the level of electoral politics and voting duties, but with learning how to interact confidently with strangers when in the public sphere.
This calls for education in what Allen calls “public friendship,” which accords to those usually perceived as enemies or opponents the same consideration we give to our personal friends. Such friendship is not an emotion but a practice, a “discipline,” as we say in the religious vocabulary. In effect, Allen is calling for the same spiritual maturity that King himself was leading us toward. In their respective ways, both want to see love applied in our public lives. The religious communities have a natural role to play here, and many Christian and Jewish denominations maintain offices like the Ministers for Social, Racial and Economic Justice in my own United Church of Christ. Religious leadership is essential to redefine citizenship as nothing less than the religious enterprise King called for. As Cornel West put it in one of his perfect aphorisms, “justice is what love looks like in public.
Students could take a leading role in this spiritual work. After all, it was students who, upon signing their last will and testaments, felt called to join a freedom bus ride to Montgomery. But which is the next destination? It could be the Occupy installations in so many cities, except the kind of daily and weekly commitment necessary is not practical for many students, nor consistent with their academic obligations. Personally, I would like to see students get behind the idea of Universal National Service, where Americans between eighteen and twenty-five will serve eighteen months in some kind of service program, whether it be military, infrastructure, social, educational, or medical service. Bringing young people of all ethnicities and economic strata into a common commitment, it would be a more than symbolic action representing a true and more just level of citizenship.