Two days with Freedom Riders brings important lessons about legacy of civil rights movement
I was sitting in on a panel discussion convened by the Florida Humanities Council on Friday, when the notion hit me:
Thank God for Donald Trump.
I had the good fortunate to participate in what organizers called a "murderer's row" of authorities on race issues and civil rights present and past, led by Ray Arsenault, the professor at USF St. Petersburg who literally wrote the book on the Freedom Riders, the biracial group of activists who rode buses into the South in 1961, challenging federal authorities to enforce existing anti-segregation court rulings on interstate travel.
The panel's roster included Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr, the Ybor City-born minister who participated in the freedom rides to desegregate the nation's bus system 50 years ago and Gene Patterson, the former St. Petersburg Times editor who won a Pulitzer Prize for his brave columns challenging segregation and race-based oppression while editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
The topic -- the modern-day legacy of the civil rights movement -- got me thinking about media, race, Trump and the two days I spent a couple of weeks earlier with Arsenault, Lafayette, a handful of other original riders and 40 handpicked students ho recreated their original journey through the South, to decidedly better results.
That trip resulted in a mega-story published in the Times' features section Sunday, and a wonderful multimedia presentation developed by the photojournalist who also joined us on the ride, Kathleen Flynn (see below). More on that later.
But the reason I was thanking Trump, is because his aborted, egotistical, race-baiting, dishonest sorta-campaign for president proved one thing -- besides the fact that Trump for should never, ever actually run for president.
That we have reached a point where people can't openly say a man doesn't deserve a job simply because he is black.
Trump came close as anyone, hinting about a non-existent uncertainty about President Obama's birthplace, then implying he may not have deserved to attend the Ivy League schools he graduated from. His reward was increasing public ridicule, dropping ratings for his unscripted NBC show and an eventual awkwardly face-saving exit from contention to keep his network TV salary and brand-boosting prime time TV show. A dedicated minority may have liked his talk, but the rest of the country decided he was peddling something they had no use for -- thinly disguised racism.
And that reaction, is a direct legacy of the civil rights movement and freedom riders.
Back when they got on the buses in 1961, many Americans still believed the races should be separate, white people were naturally smarter and more capable than black people and any attempt to bring the races together on an equal footing would ruin the country. Back then, openly resisting those ideas in certain parts of the country meant taking your life in your hands; yet, those riders did it anyway.
The greatest pleasure of spending time with them earlier this month was seeing how their thirst for social justice had hardly changed. Dr. Lafayette, who has taught courses on non-violence for years at the memorial center named for his friend and mentor Martin Luther King Jr., talked about how non-violent civil disobedience meant you not only refused to obey an unjust law, but you accepted the penalty for breaking that law. So freedom riders accepted arrest and jail time without resisting or fleeing, showing respect for the rule of law in general who protesting a specific element of it.
Dr. Lafayette also talked about "horizontal segregation," theorizing that those who supported segregation wanted to keep the races from sitting together because that's when you really see another person as your equal. This idea came from his childhood in Ybor City, when he used to grab coffee for his family in the early morning, eventually sitting at the deserted, whites-only counter to wait for his order. It wasn't until he started taking seat, that the man who fixed his order every day began to chat with him as a friend.
Rider Joan Mulholland (at left) recalled her long friendship with onetime black nationalist Stokely Carmichael. Mulholland, one of the many white freedom riders who stood up against segregation and discrimination, recalled how she brought her children to meet Carmichael at an event in the '70s, astonishing bystanders who couldn't believe how tenderly the fierce voice of Black Panthers spoke to his longtime friend and her Caucasian children.
And Charles Person, a rider who went into the military after his civil rights work, brought tears to many during one late night session with the students when he described how he practices non-violence. For him, the key was learning to love your enemies, even as they are trying to kill you -- beating you, arresting you and insulting you in every way imaginable.
A Marine talking about the virtues of non violence. Now that was a truly remarkable sight.
During the panel discussion Friday, we talked about a lot more. Dr. Lafayette spoke on creating groups of "godfathers" in troubled communities who could mentor at risk youths. Patterson talked about Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson's book The Abandoned, wondering how to deal with the persistent underclass which hasn't been lifted as much by advances in civil rights. "Can 'burn, baby burn' be replaced with 'learn, baby learn'?" the retired editor said, adapting a classic protest chant.
Good question. But I was heartened by the fact that, 50 years past the original rides, we were still gathering together, committed to making a difference in a way that helps spread equality and root out prejudice.
As we all celebrate another wonderful Memorial Day, I can't think of a better tribute to those who have sacrificed to keep our country strong, than to spend a little time giving props to another group who sacrificed so much to create a country where the Trumps of the world would, finally, be put in their place.