Civil rights movement the 'most heroic' in United States history

Below is an article from our Affirmative Action Media Monitoring Project. These articles represent a wide variety of views. These views do not necessarily represent the views of AAPF but instead are intended to provide you with an overview of the current affirmative action debate. May 14, 2011

By Lara Marlowe

THERE WERE 13 passengers, seven blacks and six whites, on the first two Freedom Rider buses that left Washington DC in May 1961. John Lewis, the black rider today known as “the conscience of the US Congress”, was attacked in South Carolina.

Otherwise, the group travelled peacefully as far as Alabama.

The Freedom Riders were demanding enforcement of a Supreme Court decision, handed down the previous year, banning racial segregation on inter-state buses, in restaurants, toilets and waiting rooms in bus terminals.

The Ku Klux Klan, in collusion with local police, was determined to stop the protest. In Anniston, Alabama, 50 years ago today, an angry white mob smashed the windows of the first bus and slashed its tyres. A Klansman pulled his car in front of the bus. Someone in the crowd threw a molotov cocktail through a window. The passengers barely escaped with their lives.

The second bus was attacked in Anniston bus station, where Klansmen beat passengers unconscious and stacked them “like pancakes” in the back of the bus, eyewitnesses said.

Most of the Washington Freedom Riders gave up, but a student group from Nashville, Tennessee, resumed the struggle. After still more Riders were beaten with baseball bats, tyre irons and bicycle chains, a bus eventually reached Jackson, Mississippi, on May 24th. Its passengers were arrested and sent to the notorious Parchman prison.

Over the ensuing four months, buses from all over the US converged on Jackson, carrying 436 Freedom Riders in all. Most were arrested and sent to Parchman. “It energised feelings in the north,” recalls Calvin Trillin, who covered the story as a young Time magazine reporter. “Until then, Americans thought of racism as a southern, regional problem. They just thought that was the way southerners were. It was treated more as an embarrassment than as an outrage that had to be stopped.”

That same year, a young African-American named James Meredith demanded to be admitted to the University of Mississippi, known as Ole Miss. Seven years had passed since the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools were illegal, in Brown vs Board of Education. But Mississippi’s governor swore no schools would be integrated as long as he was in office.

On September 30th, 1961, President John F Kennedy sent federal marshals to escort Meredith into Ole Miss. A white mob attacked them. Two people were killed and hundreds were injured in a night of rioting.

Calvin Trillin says the real turning point in American public opinion came in May 1963, with images of police dogs snarling at black children and of protesters swept away by high-power water hoses in Birmingham, Alabama. The violence continued to escalate: the black activist Medgar Evers was shot dead outside his home in Mississippi. The Ku Klux Klan dynamited a Baptist church in Birmingham, killing four little girls. In mid-1964, three civil rights workers – two of whom were white – were murdered by the Klan in Mississippi.

Without the civil rights movement and the affirmative action programmes that grew from it, Barack Obama would never have become President of the United States, says David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker magazine and author of The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.

“The civil rights movement, specifically the years between 1954 and 1968, with Brown vs Board of Education and the assassination of Martin Luther King jnr, is the most successful, most heroic public and political movement in the history of the United States,” says Remnick. “Race is the most painful and prolonged epic story of the United States. It defines the country. And so, to have an African-American in the White House is not the end of the story. But it is a very important marker.”

Soul-searching about the reality of progress and the apparent indifference of today’s youths have dominated commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders. Due to the flight of whites and a parallel system of private schools in Mississippi, education in the nation’s poorest state is still segregated. Activists like Alan Bean, the Texas-based founder of Friends of Justice, say the mass incarceration of young black men is a forgotten but fundamental civil rights issue.

Leonard Pitts jnr, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald newspaper, questions whether anyone today still has the courage of the Freedom Riders. It’s easy to claim one would have got on that bus, Pitts writes. “Then you remember the savagery, the violent attacks from people mortally outraged that these young men and women travelled in integrated groups and ignored segregation signs.”

Belief in non-violent protest has also withered, Pitts says. “It was not just a high Christian ideal, but also sound and effective strategy, the idea being that through the willingness to sacrifice your body, you made it clear as air to a watching world which side had the moral high ground, and which did not.”

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