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Freedom Rides of 1961

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I watched Oprah the other night. And in other entries I will come back to Oprah because in a way the idea for this blog began to grow with my discomfort with Oprah’s obsession with positive psychology. I love Oprah, don’t get me wrong. But on the positive psychology issues, I think she’s lost her mind.

Night before last, Oprah did her soon-to-end show about the Freedom Rides of 1961. This week is the fiftieth anniversary of their beginning. The early Civil Rights era is certainly always something that can bring a tear to my eye, and so I watched. I plan to watch the PBS documentary that will air on May 16.

I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1960, so I don’t remember the Freedom Rides. My parents over the years lectured my brother and me about the evils of racism and segregation, about Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, about Emmett Till, about the Birmingham Church bombing, about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I grew up breathing that air. My mother would drive us down past the Lorraine Motel, long before it became a museum, and tell us about the shame of being a white person in Memphis.

My parents were not “radicals” and they did not participate in events like the Freedom Rides. By 1961, they had two young children and mainly watched as the major events played out, working to support their family, changing diapers, cooking meals. They were a different, quieter kind of activist in that both of them became educators and supported the aspirations and dreams of children and college students of all races for many long years. They had been raised on “Red, and yellow, black and white, we are all God’s children in his sight.” They believed it.

As I watched Oprah rotate through her numerous Freedom Rider interviews, I thought about her tears and my own. When I think about that era of U.S. history, I cry out of a sense of joy that things have changed, even if not enough. I cry out of sorrow and horror that things could have been the way they were, that so many individuals had to suffer needlessly for so long. I cry because I had a little white friend in Memphis in the sixties whose mother actually used the N-word. And because a few years later in Knoxville, I had a black school friend, Suzette, who would not come to my house to play. I cry because in Knoxville, I was one of very few white children who did not boycott school when busing for desegregation began. Otherwise I might never have played hopscotch with Suzette.

Of course, I can’t be sure why Oprah cried. She mentioned growing up in racist Mississippi, and so she certainly has painful memories of her own. But she also noted that the Freedom Riders indicate how much individuals can do to change things. I suppose I shouldn’t object to a note of triumphalism about the Civil Rights movement. It is well deserved, and it’s absolutely true that brave individuals stood their ground. I’m not sure that anything similar could happen today. Perhaps we do use the internet to make some changes in the world. But as was implicit in Oprah’s exhortation, there is no longer a sense of optimism among the young. And who can blame them?

One of the people on Oprah’s show was an elderly white gentleman who had attacked the Freedom Riders, there to express his regret. He noted that the young black man he’d been beating had told him that the Riders were there out of love, not hate, and would not fight back. Quite the contrast to the violent world of 9/11 and the violent reaction to it.

5 responses »

  1. Maybe the difference between then and now, is that believing that we are essentially different couldn’t remain as a respectable public position (although, it is surely held privately by many still). At some point, MLK has to be right, that we get judged by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin. The difference now is that the lines are drawn between beliefs rather than character, or at least, beliefs stand in for character and other things like skin color. And, we have control over our beliefs. So, whereas blacks at the time could be seen as merely inferior to whites, the left is now seen as evil in comparison to the right. And, there’s no compromise with evil.

    It reminds me of when I was in the office of a high-ranking university official in Burundi. It was during a time of serious unrest in the country. He asked me what I thought the nature of the problems were in the country. I didn’t give him much of an answer, sensing a trap. He answered for himself – it was the sane people in Bujumbura, the capital (in other words, his people), and the crazy people “out there”. It wasn’t about ethnicity, he said. Now, it was just coincidental that ethnicities mapped on to that division he had made (the “crazy people” were all Hutu, and the “sane people” were all Tutsi), but if a division is put in terms of something that we have control over (and people think we have control over our beliefs), then the divisions can be hardened, and they can become more extreme.

  2. Kate Cumiskey

    Thanks Lisa, for this post. I too am the child of white Southern parents who had a different take on equality than say, the perception of my Northern in-laws on the attitude of whites in the South. My father, a Mississippi Depression orphan, struggled fiercely for the rights of his black brothers and sisters in my native Alabama in the sixties. On Black Sunday he ran out of our own church down to see the results of hatred laid out on a church lawn.
    I’ve always been fascinated by some persons’ assumptions that because my parents were white, they were bigots. My mother’s response to the Freedom Rides interests me, too; she was very concerned about the safety of our maid, Beulah’s, children. It was a scary time on many levels, but Beulah’s children were afraid to go to school because the Freedom Riders hounded them to join them, dogging their steps. Beulah wouldn’t allow my father to drive her home in the evenings because she feared for his safety. She had five children, so did my mother (I was the youngest) and my mother worked full time and split her pay with Beulah, who cared for all of us. I loved her. I was expected to treat her with the utmost respect–to treat her with more respect than I did my own parents. And I did that. It was easy. So, things were much more complex than some people I’ve encountered wish to know. I can’t begin to imagine what they were like for Beulah and her family.
    When my husband and I moved to California in 1982, I found people there–even in the shops and restaurants–would not even reply to me but spoke readily to my husband. It took me a while to figure out it was because I had a deep drawl and he had a Midwestern twang. So, over three years I deliberately lost my native voice, I changed it. Now I’m a little ashamed of myself.
    It is important for all of us to examine our times and our responses to them, to defend those wrongly attacked and to stand for what we believe.

  3. Thanks for responding, Kate. Do you know the book Killers of the Dream by Lillian Smith? It was published in 1949, so is considerably dated now, but is still wonderful on the complexities of race relations in the South. It had changed some by the time we were kids, but I think the patterns she discusses were still in evidence in the sixties and seventies.

  4. I was born in 1959, so I don’t recall much about the Freedom Riders. It’s something, no doubt, my father would have found terrible. My father consciously taught us to be racists. Every once in a while, after church on Sunday morning, he’d load us, his six children, into our van and drive us through “New Town”–the part of Sarasota where many blacks lived. As we drove through the streets of New Town, my father would point out how “trashy their yards are,” “how badly they dress,” how dilapidated their houses are.” He’d say, “We gave them this whole section of town and look how they’ve said their thanks to us: they’ve ruined it.” Or “They just don’t know how to take baths.” Or “They aren’t smart enough to mow their lawns.” On and on he went.

    Please note that in the above retelling of this story, I have used the plural pronoun “they” where my father used the N-word. It was a common word around our house. My father no more thought a black man could vote than hold a job.

    Once my cousin (known as the “black sheep of the family” in those days) dated a black teenager, and (oh my god) invited him and other black friends to her birthday party. I recall my mother pulling into the driveway of my cousin’s house, spotting a few of the early party gatherers out back, playing in the sprinklers. A few black girls mingled in with my other white cousins. I don’t recall what my mother said, but she began to back our van out of the driveway. My cousin’s mother, my aunt, came running out and assured my mother she would not let anything bad happen to me. “Just keep those [kids] away from my kids,” she said to my aunt.

    I don’t know why it is that those early teachings/brainwashings didn’t sink in. I don’t know why I thought both my father and my mother just didn’t understand. Perhaps I felt differently because the first boy to ever tell me that he “liked” me was black. We were in the fifth grade when desegregation came to our six room schoolhouse in Sarasota County. And when the black children came, I was excited. Even more so when George wrote a note and passed it across the sea of white faces with my name on it. “I like you,” it said.

    Still, by then my father had driven us through New Town and Laurel, a small “black” town south of Sarasota and pointed out all of the ignorant, ugly, good-for-nothing black people.

    Only as an adult did I find out about the Freedom Riders. Only as an adult did I realize the events that went on around me as a child were changing the world. I wish I’d been a more active participant in creating equality and acceptance.

    One thing that I believe my early “training” did do is this: I can still see racism today. I have heard people say racism is a thing of the past. While my father openly trained us to be racists, all that training was done inside the van, inside our house. In public we just didn’t talk about civil rights or black people. (Oh, once, my mother said she didn’t think the law would ever permit blacks on our beaches when we were at the beach.) But in public my parents appeared to be accepting, loving people. We just never had an occasion to be blatant in public, so in public my father’s racism was subtle, implicit, which is, I think, why I can still see, very clearly the implicit, systemic racism that exists today.

    Thanks Dad.



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