African American and Women's History Month held in February holds special significance this year. We mark 50 years since a dedicated group of men and women hailing from all across the U.S. boarded buses in Washington, D.C. bound for Jackson, Mississippi. Bridging the divides of race, age, and class, they united around a common mission: to stage nonviolent protests against the Southern states' outdated Jim Crow laws and their non-compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibited segregation in all interstate public transportation facilities.
The core membership of the 430-strong "Freedom Riders" included members of the Nashville Student Movement, an activist group who had already successfully desegregated lunch counters and movie theaters in their home city. Diane Nash, a capable, articulate spokesperson, coordinated the Freedom Riders' efforts from Nashville. Reverend James Lawson, an ardent proponent of non-violence who informed Dr. Martin Luther King's strategies and actions, mentored the Riders in the art of non-violence.
As the buses departed Washington on May 5, 1961, black and white riders sat side by side, an act criminalized in most segregated states. At stops along the way, the Freedom Riders entered "whites" and "colored" areas in contrary fashion and dined together at segregated lunch counters. The journey taken by these non-violent protesters involved brutal beatings, fire bombing of their bus, and ultimate imprisonment in Mississippi's notorious State Penitentiary, Parchman Farm. Their efforts have been hailed as a watershed moment within the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement.
Spawned by the courage and creativity of bold young people, undivided by gender, race, socioeconomic status, these 430 individuals came together as a united front to oppose discrimination, violent oppression, and sanctioned inequity. I honor them especially right now, as the daily news bears faces of Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis, Iranians, Tunisians, Algerians. I see men and women, old and young, of many colors and religious affiliations. United, they stand and march and chant together for their basic human rights: to live free from violence and oppression, to overcome indignity and poverty, to have a voice in their governance.
I offer up a plea that the lesson of history will be repeated and that the truth of of Dr. King's assertion -- "The arc of history is long, and it bends toward justice" -- will have its day.
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To find our more about the Freedom Riders, watch this trailer for a new documentary by Director Stanley Nelson.