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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 05-24-24 – The Freedom Riders of 1961

One of things I enjoy is weekly posts reflecting on history and events that resonate with me. It is an opportunity to learn and to reflect on those who came before us who contributed to our society through their actions. Writing is a great way to learn, at least for me. This week it is on an important chapter of American history we do not teach people of any age enough about. On this day in 1961 a group of people called the Freedom Riders boarded buses headed for Jackson, Mississippi to replace others who had been wounded in the quest for civil rights. They were arrested and spent the summer incarcerated for their nonviolent actions to expand civil rights. They changed the course of US history.


We know that segregation was the law of the land in 61. Black people could not sit in the front of buses, use the same bathrooms or water fountains as or eat in the same places as white people. Accounts of the ere note that the federal government was more focused on the spread of communism than the challenges of discrimination on the home front. Some view what the Freedom Riders did as a dare to the federal government to uphold values expressed internationally here at home. They were arrested upon their arrival. Their brave actions changed history.


A few days earlier, on Mother’s Day, in Anniston Alabama the KKK stopped, attacked, and disabled one of the buses bound from DC to New Orleans as it traversed the deep south. The mob set the bus on fire and held the doors closed in an attempt to burn the Freedom Riders to death. The gas tank exploded, dispersing the KKK, and the choking occupants spilled out on to the side of the road. This was in front of the home of 12-year-old hero Janie Forsyth McKinney, who saw what was happening, pushed through the violent crowd to bring water to the bloodied riders laying on the ground.  


Not to be deterred and to demonstrate that violence would not thwart their efforts to eliminate segregation, this second set of riders checked their wills, believing that standing up for justice could cost them their lives. They departed for Jackson. When they arrived on May 24th, they were arrested for "disturbing the peace" after disembarking from their bus and entering a whites only area. It outraged the nation, who could not look away from what they saw on TV. Hundreds more traveled to Mississippi to be arrested. The honorable John Lewis was one of those who were on the May 24th Bus. He and many others were sent to Parchman Farm a place from which some people never returned from.


Writing this post led me to learn a lot I had not known, including Morgan v. Virginia a Supreme Court decision in 1946 ruling that segregation on interstate buses was unconstitutional. Southern states simply ignored the federal court and dared the Executive Branch to uphold the laws of our nation. Under several administrations, it remained the case that because of political considerations and the fear that upholding the law meant the loss of elections, even sympathetic administrations did not enforce the ruling of the court. Not stuff I learned in middle school social studies class.  


What the Freedom Riders did was force the public and by extension the federal government to pay attention to the ugly reality of discriminatory treatment by risking their very lives. A total of 463 riders participated in the Freedom Rides. An excellent documentary, Freedom Riders by filmmaker Stanley Nelson explores this chapter of our history. In looking into the topic, the most moving video I found was produced by Oprah Winfrey, The Freedom Riders Reunite 50 Years Later in which she brought 178 of the surviving riders on to her show. It is well worth watching.


The Oprah event included a man who beat Congressman John Lewis in a bus station and regretted what he had done for decades. He eventually found Congressman Lewis and apologized to him. He acknowledged that what he believed in and did at the time was wrong. The late Congressman Lewis lightly touched the man’s hand and noted he was the only person who ever apologized to him for what had occurred on the Freedom Rides. There was a connection between the two men. It was apparent that healing of deep wounds had occurred for both. It made me hopeful for us all.  


A few years back, I was in one of the Congressional office buildings in DC early one evening for an event. I looked up and saw John Lewis on a motorized scooter passing by me. In that moment, we made eye contact and I bowed briefly to acknowledge him, and he responded in kind. I got a little choked up as I thought about who he was and what he had done for our nation, including but in no way limited to being one of those brave heroes on those buses. It was a special moment for me, and I recalled it when he passed about one year after I had encountered him in that hallway.


I am grateful for all who risked their lives for freedom and against oppression in that May of 1961, 63 years ago. It is an ugly chapter in our history. We have much to learn from our ugly chapters. We are far from perfect, but we are a nation that also has a history of expanding rights and standing up for what is right when brave people who love our nation stand up. Grateful for that.

What are you grateful for today?

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Beckey VanEtten
Beckey VanEtten

A story we should all know about. Thank you for sharing this Bill!

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