Last week I attended the 50th Reunion of the Freedom Riders, in Jackson, Mississippi, an event which honored the courageous men and women who rode buses and trains into the deep south to test a 1960 United States Supreme Court decision (Boynton v. Virginia) which outlawed racial segregation in interstate travel — and which became a pivotal point in the early civil rights movement.
My father, along with a group of other Cornell students, took a train from New Orleans to Jackson and was arrested on May 30, 1961. But what does this even have to do with “Mama, PhD”? Aside from being a meaningful personal experience for me, the reunion was a powerful lesson about what it means to be political, and about the power of personal stories.
My father died in 2001, so I went to Mississippi in his place. Not only to enact his return and allow him to be recognized by proxy, but also for a personal, selfish reason: I wanted to hear stories about my father. I knew I would be meeting people who had ridden on the train from New Orleans to Jackson with him, and who had been in jail with him. I’ve come to realize that listening to someone’s stories is the ultimate act of love.
My father told great stories about his involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements, but I remember his personal stories better: eating leftover food from rich students’ plates while a scholarship student in college; losing his virginity and then being crushed when the woman dumped him; hitchhiking out west; becoming obsessed with food during a hunger strike in jail. Our parents’ stories often wash over us; we hear bits and pieces and we think we know them all. I was very close to my father, so close that I assumed I knew all of his stories.
When I found out my father was dying, my boyfriend and I drove from Montana to New York in two days, so that we could spend time with him before his first (possibly disabling) surgery. That morning before taking him to the hospital, my boyfriend began asking him questions and got him to tell the story of being a freedom rider. I guess I had heard his account before, but it melted together with all of my father’s political stories; he never presented it as his most significant political action and in fact downplayed his involvement. In listening to my father tell the complete story to a new audience, I felt like I was hearing it for the first time. He described how surprised he was when he called the CORE office and was told he could be useful; his terror when seeing a mob waiting for them in Jackson (which turned out to be reporters!), his conversations in jail with fellow prisoners about the role of religious faith in their political activism.
Last week in Jackson I heard other Freedom Riders speak eloquently of their fears and the profound sacrifices they and members of their families had made. This is the lesson I think we forget: that they risked something -- their lives, their reputations, and their jobs -- to be a part of this struggle.
I heard the stories of southern blacks who had been teenagers when they became freedom riders; from those who had been in the burning bus surrounded by an angry mob; from CORE organizers; from those who had been strip searched and put on death row at Parchment prison. But most memorable to me were the personal stories. Joan Mulholland told of a prison guard instinctively reaching to help her out of the paddy wagon upon arriving at Parchman Penitentiary, but then recoiling. She also explained her subsequent decision to leave Duke University in order to integrate the all-black Tougaloo College in Jackson.
Later that day, I heard Myrlie Evers-Williams at the unveiling of a commemorative plaque honoring her murdered husband. After the speech I witnessed an older white man standing in front of me suddenly recognize an elderly black woman. I couldn’t hear all of their conversation, but I watched their obvious delight in seeing each other again (perhaps after 50 years?) and the unselfconscious way their hands entwined while they spoke.
During the excellent PBS documentary about the Freedom Riders, a message flashed on the screen asking viewers: would they ride the bus? A similar question was asked of the high school students who participated in the reunion in Jackson. While I understand the impulse behind the question, agreeing to ride a freedom bus fifty years later, after the civil rights movement has already been sanctified seems as meaningless as the Governor’s apology. It’s easy now to join the movement retroactively, but I know my father would have asked, what real risks are you willing to take today?
The stories that I heard in Jackson were the most significant and real part of the event, more powerful than any politician’s speech or plaques or official statements. They demonstrated that this movement was made up of ordinary people who became extraordinary because of their willingness to act without a guarantee that their actions would prove triumphant.
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