Who would you most like to meet and why? (Dana)
Earlier this year, I went through an "I'm going to learn all about the American Civil Rights Movement" phase. I watched all of Eyes on the Prize, read quite a few books, and spent a lot of time online trying to learn more about specific people whose roles in the Civil Rights movement were particularly compelling to me.
I found myself really drawn to the stories about the Freedom Rides...in part because 2011 was the 50th anniversary and there was just a ton of information available as I was beginning my journey through this part of our nation's history...but also, because I think it was such a riveting moment in the non-violent protest era of the Civil Rights movement.
|Freedom Ride routes|
In May of 1961, a group of activists (many of whom were college students) planned a series of bus trips through southern states in an attempt to see the extent to which segregation was still the law of the land, even though the Supreme Court had banned these practices on interstate travel. Although the rides started out peacefully, as the buses made their way deeper into the south, violence prevailed. The Freedom Riders faced Klansmen (working in concert with local police) in Birmingham and Anniston, Alabama. A bus was blown up and riders were beaten nearly to death. Others were jailed.
|Jim Zwerg from Appleton, WI...after sustaining |
a mob beating in Montgomery, AL.
Over the course of 6 months in 1961, over 60 rides took place. There were over 400 riders, the majority of whom ended up in jail upon reaching Mississippi. The demographics of the riders were inspiring...although only 25% were women (though this may have been a decent number for the early 60s?), the split was about 50/50 when it came to race (black/white...not sure about other races). Even more amazing? The vast majority were under the age of 30. There were so many amazing people...so many compelling stories.
|Credit: The Nashville Tennessean (from this site)|
When Ms. Nash moved from Chicago to Nashville to go to college, she discovered that racism was present in ways that she had not experienced during her life in the northern part of the United States. She hadn't encountered things like lunch-counter and rest room segregation in Chicago. Nashville was an entirely different world than the one in which she had been raised. A lot of people would have left...would have moved back to the familiarity of home. But Ms. Nash stayed...and got involved. She learned as much as she could about non-violent protest. And then she taught what she'd learned to others. She organized. She fought.
|Credit: WGBH (from this site)|
The imminence of violence...the not-particularly-remote chance of death. The Sisyphean task of filling counter after counter, bus after bus...wondering if the beatings would ever end, if the laws would ever change. I can't imagine what sort of courage and patience and resolve that would take.
When I hear her talk and I read about her story, I can't help but wonder what I would have done, had I been a young person in that era. Had I been a student in Tennessee (or wherever) and my peers were involved in non-violent protest, would I have joined in? Would I have sat at lunch counters? Would I have participated in history?
Or would I have been afraid of the beatings? Of going to jail? Of my parents (who likely would have been concerned for my safety)? Would I even have embraced the movement? Or would I have clung to the status quo? Would I have been scared to make waves? Would I have just made excuses and waited on lethargic politicians?
I think we all like to imagine we'd do the right thing when confronted with a serious or dire situation. We would stop the crime occurring in front of us...we'd blow the whistle on an unethical colleague...we'd stand up for a friend. But would we do what Ms. Nash did? Would we really? Would I?
When history sneaks up on you and stares you in the face and challenges you and offers you a chance to change it, do you recognize the opportunity? Do you accept the responsibility? Or do you shy away?
How did she know that this was the moment? How did she find the strength to embrace this challenge?
Getting to hear her address these particular ideas...that is why I would love to meet Diane Nash.
Watch The Student Leader: A Short Film from Freedom Riders on PBS. See more from Freedom Riders.