On May 4, 1961, a group of thirteen started a bus journey from Washington D.C. to New Orleans, LA, through several southern states. Their goal was to peacefully protest the segregation in bus terminals in various southern states. There were six whites and seven blacks, including both young men and young women. The group committed, at the outset, that they would remain non-violent no matter what they faced. The group was labeled the Freedom Riders.
Their rides through Virginia and North Carolina proceeded uneventfully, however upon arriving at a South Carolina two black men were beaten by a white crowd as they attempted to enter a ‘whites only’ waiting area. The violence escalated from there. In Atlanta, Georgia the group split onto two buses and proceeded their trip. In Alabama and Mississippi, the violence grew. Their bus was bombed and burned in Anniston, AL and the Freedom Riders, who all escaped the fire, were brutally beaten. As they continued, they faced angry white mobs all along the way. In some cases, police protection was withdrawn, allowing mobsters to beat the Freedom Riders, both black and white, and all who supported them, again both black and white.
At one point, they were arrested and imprisoned, not in a city or county jail but in a prison. More protesters came from all of the country ready and willing to be arrested and join their cohorts in prison.
The Kennedy Administration became involved along the way, initially to try to avoid embarrassment but ultimately working to protect the Freedom Riders with Federal Marshals and eventually calling for a cooling off period. Freedom Riders continued their efforts into the fall of 1961. The horrifical violence against these peaceful protesters gained wide coverage both nationally and internationally.
Finally, that fall, the Kennedy Administration pressured the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue new regulations prohibiting segregation in interstate transit terminals.
The Freedom Rider ordeal embarrassingly brought to light the hate and disrespect that blacks were experiencing in the south. Yet through the sacrifice of those protesters, black and white alike, change was made. This and other peaceful protests in that era ultimately brought a change of laws that made segregation illegal. Other lows went further in the interest of forcing integration schools, employment, housing, etc.
While it has taken many years, fortunately, people’s attitude toward the African American Community has improved significantly. No longer should the term racism be applied to entire groups of people. Racism does still exist among both whites and blacks, however for the most part, it rests with individuals or small groups rather than large swaths of our nation.
African Americans have broken through every job barrier
Some people resented the forced integration but, looking back, it has worked. Blacks live and work among whites and the vast majority of Americans think nothing of it. It seems natural. Interracial marriage has become common place and most people consider it a positive thing. African Americans have broken through every job barrier. Barak Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008. General Colin Powel rose to the highest position in our military, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later became the first black secretary of state. Dr. Ben Carson rose up out of poverty and became the most brilliant and admired neurosurgeon in the world.
As a society, we certainly have improvements yet to make. Unfortunately, some are attempting to use violence to further their cause. Looking back, non-violence was very effective in initiating change. Those engaging in violence risk undoing some of the progress that has been made, in terms of people’s attitudes toward one another.
African Americans now have the freedom to make choices without legal restrictions
The commitment and sacrifice of Freedom Riders and those like them have brought us to this place where African Americans are free to make choices without legal restrictions. The American dream is open to them as it is to anyone else.
I recently met a very impressive woman who has demonstrated this clearly. I have not asked her permission to share her name so I will just call her Tina. Tina is an accomplished professional dancer, renowned in her field. She danced with a professional Ballet Company for 15 years. She has said that as she grew up and learned ballet, she never considered that her race mattered. She considered herself a ballet dancer, not a black ballet dancer. She experienced rejection at times. She never considered that it might be because of her race. Each time it motivated her work harder and perfect her craft. She says as she looks back, she sees that some rejection may have been racially motivated, however, she also says that she is glad that she handled rejection the way she did. She believes that if she had taken a victim mentality, she would not have accomplished what she did.
I certainly can’t speak for African American people. I have never walked in their shoes. I believe that they still face challenges that I never will. However, I can speak as an observer who has seen nonviolence accomplish amazing things.