I have lost track of the number of times I have sat in a classroom and heard stories about the civil rights movement or how often I've seen films that show the great courage that defined the journey. However, I have very rarely been able to engage the history of those times in a tangible way. Perhaps this is a result of growing up in Muncie, Ind., or simply of being only 22 years old, but it was not until the Studio@620 Round Table on Social Justice this month that I fully realized how little I really knew or how superficial my understanding had been up to this point.
The roundtable, "From 'We Shall Overcome' to 'Yes We Can': The Historic Meaning of President Barack Obama," covered key moments of the civil rights movement, fast forwarding to the recent election of Obama as the 44th president of the United States. I was honored to serve on a panel with Rip Patton, a seasoned veteran of the civil rights movement and legendary Freedom Rider, as well as Cheryl Rodriguez, director of the Institute on Black Life at the University of South Florida.
After watching a civil rights film, we discussed what President Obama's election means for the American people regardless of race. We talked about our expectations, our hopes and our trepidations. Most important, we worked to recognize our responsibility as citizens and the challenges we face in the years ahead. As the evening progressed, our discussion focused on serving our communities, taking this exceptional victory for equality, and fighting even harder to see that the ongoing efforts against intolerance are strengthened, rather than coddled to complacency.
It is difficult to imagine that individuals sacrificed their lives and their freedom for an ideal. As Rip and other Freedom Riders recounted their stories, I was amazed to hear of 19- and 20-year-olds who took part in such selfless and brave acts, demonstrations that ignored consequence and strived for systemic change. The Freedom Rides left a mark on history that should never be forgotten.
In an age saturated with text messages, Facebook groups and anonymous message boards, we rarely see our peers taking to the streets in the name of some meaningful cause. We must remember, though, that our generation, though young, continues to have the power to stand up for what is right, and to influence the world around us.
It is clearer to me now, more than ever, that our generation is truly blessed by the efforts of those who have gone before us. The sit-ins, the long bus rides, the sweat and blood laid the foundation not only for the election of our first African-American president, but serve as the cornerstone for a time when men and women, both black and white, can share in a common American experience. While our cities and towns still continue the struggle to rid themselves of racism and intolerance, we can be sure that the successes and accomplishments we've had thus far, as well as those we have yet to reach, are found in the soft-spoken stories and the heartfelt freedom songs that still resound on the very roads that the Freedom Riders traveled. In hearing these stories and songs we must resolve to continue working and fighting for the kind of America we know we can one day be.
Blake Johnson is the president of the Eckerd College Organization of Students. He is a senior double-majoring in political science and communications.