The Lessons of MLK, Jr. and 1961′s Freedom Riders

1961 Freedom Ride

Harvard student Pete Davis, founder of OurCommonPlace and participant in the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1961 Freedom Ride last summer with 39 other activists, gave a terrific speech at the Cambridge MLK Jr. Day Celebration in Cambridge, MA on January 16, 2012.  With Pete’s permission, here are his remarks, and audio available here [he's a great speaker]:

Hello, everyone — it is an honor to be here at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on my favorite holiday of the year, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I’m happy that MLK day is the first holiday of the year, because you start the New Year with all these personal New Year’s resolutions, and you say, “I’m going to cut back on the sweets”, “I’m going to make time to go running everyday” and then right about around this weekend, two weeks into the year, you’ve given up on all them… and you’re feeling down and don’t know what to do. And then Martin Luther King, Jr. Day comes along and reminds you that you can start your New Year off with not just personal resolutions but community and citizen resolutions — like “I’m going to cut back on my pre-judgment of others” ,“I’m going to make time to go help out and speak out and act out more around school or church or my local community every day” — and those are resolutions that are harder in practice, but easier to fight for, because you’re not just fighting for yourself. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself — my name is Pete Davis and I am a student down the road at Harvard, and I am here today because I had the great pleasure of being part of a recreation of an important Civil Rights project when this past summer I rode with 39 other students, a team of PBS cameras and a handful of Civil Rights Movement heroes in a recreation of the 1961 Freedom Ride. And I’d like to take part of my time here to look backward and tell a brief, yet harrowing, story about what one Civil Rights project accomplished in the 1960s, and then take the other part of my time here to look forward and share what one young, wide-eyed college kid from a small town in Virginia thinks about what we might just be able to accomplish in the 2010s.

In 1961, a group of young people led by Congress of Racial Equality Director James Farmer wanted to test if a Supreme Court decision integrating interstate bus travel was being implemented on the ground. So, 13 riders — six white, seven black, including one future Congressman John Lewis — set out on Greyhound and Trailways buses down South. When they got to Atlanta, they had a brief reception hosted by the big man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself. They wanted him to come on the ride as well, but he pulled a few of their leaders aside and said, “I’m not going to get on the buses with you, and if I were you, I probably wouldn’t go into Alabama…The Alabama Klan is preparing quite a welcome.” And, like good young people, they didn’t listen to him and kept going on to Alabama. And like wise, older people, King was right. The riders were met with Klan violence, they were firebombed and some were even beaten with lead pipes. But they made it all the way down to Birmingham, Alabama. 

The Kennedy administration got word of this, and Bobby Kennedy called for a “cooling down” period after this first round of Freedom Riders got home. But, a young woman from Nashville by the name of Diane Nash would have none of it, and she organized a set of Tennessee students to leave school – during their final exams – and become a new set of riders to bus down to Birmingham. One night, after brutal beatings in Montgomery, these new Freedom Riders packed into Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church and heard James Farmer, the great Fred Shuttlesworth (who passed away last year), and Dr. King, give rousing speeches as a mob gathered outside and threatened to attack the attendees. Dr. King had to get on the phone with the Kennedy administration to get the National Guard there for protection. These Freedom Riders were creating quite the ruckus.

They boarded a bus to Jackson, Mississippi and were promptly arrested and sent to the infamous Parchman Prison. The Mississippi Governor thought he had squashed ‘em — they’re now just stuck in Parchman Prison…what are they gonna do? Well, as one historian put it, they responded, “Fine, we’ll go to Parchman, and we’ll fill Parchman up, and we’ll have Parchman be the next site of the Civil Rights Movement.” And it became so. Hundreds of people across the country boarded buses, and headed to Jackson. They filled up the prison, and kept their morale by singing to their jailers, “Buses are a comin’ oh yeah, Buses are a comin’ oh yeah, Better get you ready oh yeah.” They took 300 riders of different races, religions, different regions, different political philosophies…and turned Parchman into a University of Non-Violence…a place to become more committed, more tough…and as one guy put it, to become “the shock-troops of the movement.” On September 22, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued its order: the “whites only” signs came down at bus and rail stations across the South. Two years later, President Kennedy — who had wanted to ignore civil rights and focus on foreign policy for his Presidency, who only had to start paying attention because, “those darn agitators” (as the Riders were called), had caused a ruckus — gave a speech in June 1963, calling on Congress to pass legislation to end Jim Crow altogether. The Freedom Riders — after arrests, beatings, and warnings to slow down by not only the Administration but also Civil Rights Movement leaders, themselves — had won.

And it was 50 years later that I and other college students had the great blessing of recreating the ride on our own bus…except, in this time around, the bus had Wi-fi and air conditioning; and lacked the threat of arrests and Klan mobs, fortunately. And I want to spend the rest of my time here talking about what I learned from this experience — one that involved seeing former Jim Crow cities up close and personal, talking with Civil Rights leaders new and old, and, most importantly, getting to know 39 diverse student activists from all across the country.


And I know what you’re expecting: a heartwarming tale from me about how we students — black, white, and brown, 50 years later — held hands in a big circle, sang “We Shall Overcome,” and declared racism over. Though we did hold hands at times, and though we did sing We Shall Overcome so many times that I was considering singing We Shall Overcome-the-singing-of-We Shall Overcome… that’s not the tale I’m going to tell here today. Because we all know that resting too long on our laurels of the victories of yesterday is a recipe for not opening up our eyes to the injustices of today. So, instead here’s Three Lessons from the ride with our sight set on tomorrow.

The first thing I learned on our Ride was that most people in the Civil Rights Movement did not have Civil Rights as their number one cause. Everyone, from Jim Zwerg — a white man who was beaten with a lead pipe in Alabama — to Diane Nash — the lead organizer of the second round of the rides — had an underlying loyalty that was the foundation of all their actions in their surface level causes: a loyalty to Non-Violence. When Zwerg and Nash spoke to us, they hardly focused on racial discrimination — they wanted to spend their time sharing with us their philosophy and lifestyle of non-violence. 

To the Freedom Riders, to Martin Luther King: nonviolent resistance was not the absence of violence– it was the presence of what Nash called Agapic energy, from the Greek term ‘agape’, meaning brotherly, sisterly love or love of mankind. It was a belief that people were never your enemy– unjust political systems, unjust economic systems, unjust attitudes were your enemy. And you can attack those systems, without attacking the people that participated in them. It was a belief that oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed, and that it could end if only you respected yourself enough and if only you reflected enough on how you were participating in your own oppression and if only you were brave enough to stop participating, 

They did not see non-violence or agapic energy as a ‘lovey-dovey’ ‘give peace a chance, man’ concept. They would not have liked to be known just as pacifists… they were activists! They would not have described themselves as having no weapons or as not waging war. They saw non-violence as a powerful, strong strategy, a weapon…the only weapon they had in this fight…and an energy that was not born out of thin air…it was based on a serious theory of how to win conflicts, and solve problems for justice… a philosophy that was put best when Dr. King explained that: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” And, indeed, they couldn’t have won if it was a violent conflict — they were churchmen and women up against the state police and governments in the South, with their batons, and guns, and in the case of Sheriff Bull Connor in Alabama, tanks. But what they could do, is contrast their “dignified, disciplined, non-violent actions” against the other side’s grotesque reaction of violence, leaving no way — for the millions who would watch on TV — to confuse their confrontations. 

And when they learned that philosophy — in long training sessions for the Riders, where they practiced being beaten and not responding — and when they committed to it, when they put in the hard work and discipline to live by its principles… it worked. Out of that foundation, came more surface level tactics. Out of those tactics came victories. And if we want to learn from the Civil Rights movement to repeat their success today…if we only looked at those tactics, we might never understand what made the Civil Rights movement so successful — we have to look at their deep commitment and loyalty to foundational principles about how justice is won in history. And that’s the lesson for today’s justice movements: If we don’t have an equally strong commitment to foundational principles in our movements — if we believe we’re only fighting for environmental reform or gay rights or urban renewal… only our specific issues and not, also…, always…, at the same time… re-affirming our commitment to agapic love, to our civic connection our fellow community members — …then we are … like a sail without a mast… just flapping around in the wind…not harnessing energy to move society in any direction. 

So, given that lesson…why don’t we just do what they did? Why don’t we just believe in non-violence and use their tactics…get on buses, start marching, provoke some confrontations with the police? Well, people have tried that. People have taken to the streets, people have had millions at marches in my lifetime. People have occupied public spaces and provoked the police. And yet, we have not had as big a victory for justice in my lifetime as King did in his. And I think that’s because, as I learned in the second big lesson on my trip — a lesson that came to me as I saw the contrast between how the elders on the trip talked about the problems of their day and the students on the trip talked about the problems of ours — the second big lesson is that the problems of today are taking different forms than they did back in the 60’s! 

Back then, we had Jim Crow, explicit racism and segregation by the government. Today, segregation is not by law, but by structural circumstance, as segregation plagues not our drinking fountains nor our diners, but becomes a good way to describe how our justice system and our prisons work, when 1 in 3 black men will go be imprisoned at some point in their life. Back then, explicit racial discrimination in employment was commonplace throughout the South. Today, there’s a whole division of the Justice Department to challenge explicit racism on the job, but, today, black unemployment still stands at more than twice the rate of white unemployment, with almost 1 in 5 black men in June 2011 being without work. Racism burbles up inside of us in unexpected places, as our focus on overcoming racism here at home might sometimes forget that it is also racist to believe that a human life is less worthwhile, more disposable — more collateral and incidental and less sacred — if it’s an Afghani or Pakistani life or an indigenous person’s life.  We have struck a strong blow to the type of racism that allows leaders to make slurs publicly without recourse or state legislatures to write the word “colored” into legislation. But the problems of racial disparity remain, in new forms… that can’t be overcome with the stroke of President’s pen. 

And the same is true for Materialism. In King’s time, the environmental movement was just in its infancy, and the concept of widespread corporate watchdogging was just an idea in Ralph Nader’s head. And today, we do see blowback against the incessant pursuit of material things, as community gardens, farmer’s markets, car sharing, slow food movements, and lifestyles around living on less are cropping up, reminding us that there still is a live belief that people are more important than, as Dr. King put it, “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights.” But, today we face unending advertising on half a dozen types of screens telling us that all our problems will be solved, all our insecurities will be vanquished, and all our deepest wants will be realized…if only we buy one more thing, use one more service. Today, our activists that are fighting to move our nation from, as Dr. King called them to do, a “thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society” are facing a steeper climb, as the monied interests grip ever tighter on the neck of our democratic institutions. 

And the same is true for Militarism. In King’s time, we had tens of thousands of American men and Vietnamese men, women and children killed in a grueling war. Today, we face no draft, and less civilian casualties in our militaristic pursuits overseas. But, today, we have even more trouble breaking the cycle of — what King called — the “madness of militarism” and the “self-defeating effects of physical violence” when wars are felt less back home, because the fighters are drones or soldiers from an economic bracket we never interact with. 

Whereas Jim Crow and Vietnam was a tumor on a part of society, many of the problems of today are more like sicknesses in the bloodstream, unable to be pinpointed. There used to be a Civil Rights song, “O Freedom”, where you’d sing about the specific thing you wanted to overcome… No Segregation, No Segregation, No Segregation over me…or No Bull Connor, No Bull Connor over me. But with problems as complex as today, what can we sing about in our O Freedoms? No more prison-industrial complex, no more prison-industrial complex over me…no more global warming caused by various forms of carbon emissions, no more global warming caused by various forms of carbon emission over me…no more deregulation of the financial industry…over me…you get the point.

In the age of 24 hours news blaring and blog posts and tweets and status updates whizzing around our heads…it gets confusing even knowing what’s happening and feels with these multiple storylines going at once. Our time feels new and it feels dreadfully old. It feels like networked freedom and it feels like the old power structure is still in charge. It feels like a black president but more black people in poverty. It feels like a shiny new iPhone and a hollowed out Detroit. It feels like we don’t know what the problem is and we all know what the problem is. It feels like the solutions were made 15 years ago and are waiting to be implemented and like they’re just 15 years into the future out of our reach.

And for us who want to change the world, who want to walk in King’s footsteps, we sometimes just don’t know where to start:

Whereas our heroes knew their adversaries, ours aren’t in a single form.

Whereas our heroes fought clearer, visual problems, ours are invisible and baked into institutions all around us.

Whereas they had a sense of what solutions looked like, we have trouble having a clue.

In the confusion about the content of the solutions, we latch onto forms of the past – we think to be an activist means to be a marcher, a rallier, a person that needs to use dramatic, direct action.

But what works for civil rights, for women’s rights, for getting troops pulled out of Vietnam is not necessarily going to work to solve global warming, to fix our food system, to raise our neighborhoods out of poverty, or to invigorate our public schools.

What do we act against?
Where do we march?

They had all these signs up throughout our trip that say “Would you get on the bus?” But the question is less, “Would someone today get on the bus?” and more “Which bus should I get on? Darn it…all the buses are telling me they’re the right bus!? IS this bus doing more harm than good? Oh no! This bus isn’t carbon neutral!” 

Oh, the postmodern condition…it’s so hard to find something true to get excited about in such a time. We look back on Dr. King and part of us thinks, “wow that must’ve been hard, he must’ve been one brave genius.” But then another part of us still whisper, “That was easy…Dr. King, get a load of today!”

So what do we do? How do we keep The Freedom Riders and Dr. King’s dream alive? How do we take our agapic love and translate it into action in a world with new, confounding problems? Well, I learned on the ride that we have a choice.

Option 1: Give up. Escape from the confusion of our era into safe places. Some have made that choice: those who choose to be cynical, those who use irony to distance themselves from any conviction, who laugh at those who care too much; those who complain and yearn for nonexistent pasts when ‘everything was better’, who simplify and blame it all on the other; those who keep the wheels turning on the structures that have left us all so distraught so as to see what they can privately squeeze out of it; who ignore the great public problems of our time and reject the great life in favor of the big life; and those who throw up their hands, screaming “There’s no such thing as truth and we don’t now to do…so let’s just watch some cat videos.” There’s a lifetime supply online…that’s a live option.  But, we don’t want to give up.

So there’s Option 2: Hope someone else takes on the great problems of our time and solves them for us. There is a certain quality to us that makes it easier for us to propose problems than to propose solutions. We all get riled up pointin’ to why this is bad, and that’s messed up, and that over there is being done totally backwards…and then we yell it out and hope someone else out there hears us and does something about it.

And my generation is particularly plagued by this quality, and the last few years for many young people, has been a great example of this option. In the Presidential Election in 2008, we young people had finally thought we had found someone who was going to solve all of the public problems we had been worried about throughout our lives. On election night in 2008 — when millions of young people around the country were cheering, singing and rallying together — I had thought that we were celebrating the first shot of a revitalized movement…. a launch party of sorts for the years of collective problem solving work we had in store for us. Barack was kicking down the door to a new era and we — the people! — were going to storm in! 

However, after Inauguration Day 2009, the surge of youth engagement receded. The entire Obama youth movement packed up and went home, believing their work to be done, their mission accomplished. Instead of continuing to actively organize for change, we simply waited, expecting the Presidency that we had brought to the White House to solve everything for us. When it did not work out exactly as planned, the cynicism re-emerged as we were left wondering how we, yet again, found ourselves with most of the same ol’ problems that we had before.

And there lies the problem with Option 2. History — and especially American Civil Rights history — teaches that we should not be surprised at all. Of course it is not the leaders we elect who bring major change to government policy. It is social movements and citizen projects from outside of government that force those leaders to act.

Lincoln penned the Emancipation Proclamation, but abolitionists provided the link. FDR signed off on the New Deal, but for the workers’ movement, it was old news. Maybe Nixon proposed the Environmental Protection Agency ‘cuz he was tree hugger at heart… or maybe he faced the biggest environmental movement in history!

Indeed, as historian Howard Zinn put it, “government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action.” Indeed, it was that 2008 Presidential candidate that we all fell in love with himself who put it best: “You are the ones you have been waiting for…you are the change that we seek.”

The Freedom Riders of 1961 understood that extraordinary ordinary citizens had to hold leaders’ feet to the fire if they wanted to spur those leaders to action. When the Kennedy Administration was asking for a ‘cooling off period’ from direct action by civil rights advocates, activists kept the Rides going, understanding that it was exactly direct citizen action in times of administration uneasiness that could lead to major societal change. Their success in convincing the Kennedy Administration to support bus de-segregation proved their belief true.

Flickr/HongKongHuey

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in D.C. is the only memorial that features a statute that is not free standing…rather, Dr. King’s towering figure is emerging out of a large stone of hope. It’s quite appropriate, because even Dr. King is not the be-all-end-all of the Civil Rights movement…his work and leadership only could emerge out of the tireless efforts of the tens of thousands that made up the movement. And that was the final lesson of my trip – that the real movers of American government and society are not the leaders, but rather the groups of unelected, extraordinary ordinary people who decide to commit to public action.

But there still remains the question of “What is to be done?” now…well, there’s a final option: get to work, continue the struggle, know that if we collaborate and focus and work hard, we can figure out what’s going on, identify and articulate problems, and imagine, experiment with and implement solutions.

Back in Dr. King’s day, in the post-World War II era, America was prosperous, and Dr. King’s battle was to include a group of people in that prosperity. He literally spoke in the I Have a Dream speech about a promissory note to African Americans that wasn’t cashed, despite the fact that the “great vaults of opportunity” of the nation had enough funds to cash it. When Civil Rights activists sat in at the lunch counters, they were sincere about it – they really wanted to eat at those lunch counters. It was a great house his generation inherited, and he was fighting to have equal access to all its floors and rooms.

But, today, America isn’t doing so well. The vaults of opportunity are defaulting on their loans. Most families are having a harder time finding the excess income to eat out at a lunch counter. The house my generation inherits has some pipes leaking and broken windows and failed expansion projects.

But the reason I say this is because, with the house in shambles, with the house due in for some remodeling…we have a shot. Every crisis comes with an opportunity. And America is going to be rebuilt, I’m confident of that. The question is, rebuilt by whom, and rebuilt in what spirit? There are people out there, like you in the crowd, who understand Dr. King’s dream, who know agapic love, who can imagine what a world with less racism, militarism and materialism might look like. If people like you are not in on the remodeling of America, our nation is at risk of being rebuilt with the same ol’ built-in problems, the same ol’ built-in injustices. But, if people like you participate in this rebuilding of America, out of the Great Recession of the 2000s, and into the Great Revival of the 2010s – if people like you who understand the Dream put in the hard work to participate vigorously in your neighborhood and churches and schools and campuses and elections and communities small and big…if you craft solutions that make our problems that much more meliorated… if you bend the blueprints a bit more towards justice…if you put in the focus and hard work that is necessary to make anything that matters shake and move…then the dream lives to see another day. 

But only if you choose to participate.

At my Father’s graduation from Antioch College in 1965, a preacher by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put what I am trying to say best, exclaiming that: “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with god.” 

Let’s get to work. 


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One response to “The Lessons of MLK, Jr. and 1961′s Freedom Riders

  1. Thanks for sharing this Tom!

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