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.