Tuesday, June 26, 2007

DAY 5: The historic freedom riders, and today's riders

When the Freedom Riders of 1961 rode buses throughout the south, they had a great deal more to fear than we do on this Freedom Caravan 46 years later.

The original Freedom Riders were beaten when they arrived in Rockville, South Carolina for the crime of sitting together, black and white, on public buses, and for using the “whites only” bus station lobbies and rest rooms.

In Anniston, Alabama, where they arrived on Mother’s Day, they were met by an angry mob dressed in their Sunday best, according to a history written by David Lisker to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the ride. The Freedom Riders decided not to stop at the station there, but the bus was forced to pull over outside of town when its slashed tires deflated. The bus driver fled, the mob that had followed the bus from Anniston surrounded the bus, and someone threw a fire bomb. The riders tried to escape the bus but found the exit doors blocked by the those outside the bus. When a gas tank exploded, the mob backed off enough to let the riders escape, but as the bus riders were choking on the smoke, they were beaten with steel pipes and baseball bats. According to Lisker, it was only because a plain-clothed police officer fired a gun into the air that the riders escaped lynching.

Freedom rides, jailings and beatings continued until five months after the first freedom rides began. Then, the Interstate Commerce Commission and Attorney General Robert Kennedy issued a ban enforcing the desegregation of interstate public facilities.

In Jackson, Mississippi, three bus loads of Freedom Caravan Riders took a tour of some of the city’s hot spots of civil rights history. Much of the history was unfamiliar to the group from New Mexico and Texas, although the sense of what it means to be excluded was all too familiar.

We visited Tougaloo College, which was one of the only places in Jackson where civil rights supporters could safely meet. In fact, it was one of the few places that blacks and whites could meet together at all without being arrested, according to our guide on the tour, Hollis Watkins, founder and president of Southern Echo. The college is famous for the Tougaloo Nine, who conducted a “read-in” at the whites-only Jackson Municipal Public Library. The college was once a plantation, and the main mansion has a balcony used to sell slaves. Today, it is a small college with a proud history of providing a safe haven for student and faculty and the larger civil rights movement to work against the violent system of US apartheid.

We drove by the livestock barns at the state fairgrounds where civil rights demonstrators were housed when the jails filled up. Watkins said they were often transported in cattle cars, just to make sure no one misunderstood the meaning of housing people in uncleaned livestock stalls.

It would be comforting to hear that such things don’t go on in the United States today. But adjacent to the infamous livestock sheds is the Jackson Coliseum, where evacuees from Hurricane Katrina were housed. At first, it was about equal number of blacks and white, Watkins pointed out. But after a few days, it was mainly black people waiting for a place to go.

We passed churches where blacks attempting to attend services had been beaten, and other churches that had opened their doors to civil rights gatherings, in spite of the dangers.

We passed the Greyhound station where the first Freedom Riders had disembarked and, instead of using the rear entrance reserved for blacks, entered through the front entrance. The event sparked Jackson residents to organize their own sit-ins and protests, and many spent time in jail.

We passed by the home of Medgar Evers. a modest home in a subdivision developed by and for African Americans. Evers was a field representative for the NAACP, and frequently received threats of violence and death. In May 1963, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the house; Myrlie Evers, Medgar Evers’ wife, was able to extinguish it with a garden hose. But in June 1963, the violence turned deadly; Evers was killed as he left his car after returning home late from a meeting.

Watkins took us to a statue erected in honor of Evers, where Woody Bryant, a young man from Carlsbad, New Mexico, helped with the video taping of Watkins remarks.

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Among the most inspiring stories was of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the credentials of the all-white official delegation of the Democratic Party at the national Democratic convention. Among the heroes was Fanny Lou Hammer, who had been risking her life registering people to vote and organizing black people in violence-drenched rural Mississippi.

Fanny Lou Hammer’s speech at the convention was so powerful and commanding so much media attention that President Johnson hastily called a press conference to draw media attention away from the courageous woman who risked her life to call attention to the national disgrace of an all-white delegation from a state whose people had been struggling to vote. See the YES! article on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party here.

The Fanny Lou Hammer’s niece joined the People’s Freedom Caravan today along with a bus load of people from Jackson, Mississippi, including a large Southern Echo contingent. I had a chance to speak to her when we stopped outside Wal-Marts to protest low wages and benefits for Wal-Marts workers.

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Click on this link to hear brief comments from Rep. Erik Fleming of the Mississippi House of Representatives DS200103.WMA

Next stop was Selma, Alabama, where we rejoin the buses from the Gulf Coast and prepare to join tomorrow’s march in Atlanta that begins the historic, first-ever US Social Forum.

See you there!

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