Fifty Years in May: Freedom, Faith, and the Original “Get On The Bus” Soundtrack

March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment


Image Taken From Slideshow entitled Civil Rights: The Freedom Riders

“The Power of Collective Action.”  This was not only the course name, but also the organizing principle of a class that has forever influenced my understanding of the Civil Rights movement, and my own sociopolitical outlook.   I enrolled in this Experimental College course as a first year student, thinking that I already knew most of what there was to know about the Civil Rights Movement, the Freedom Rides and the non-violent struggle that spilled into schools and coffee shops, churches and military canteens until finally, after far too much blood was shed and far to little change was conceived, a  Civil Rights Bill was passed.  Then, in came instructor Davis who had earned a lifetime degree in community organizing and black studies as a participant in both the Civil Rights Movement and later the Black Power movement. In his course I quickly discovered that what I thought I knew was surface knowledge, and even that proved to be embarrassingly little compared to the lived experiences of someone who actively participated in these struggles.

The map is from an Associated Press article in February 1962. “Note that the map shows only a few of the more than 60 Freedom Rides that criss-crossed the South between May and November of 1961” (

Instead of preaching fantasy, he educated us on the facts, which often went a lot deeper than spontaneous sit-ins.  He talked about the strategic levels of organization, education and commitment that many Freedom Riders, CORE, SNCC and SCLC members had.  He spoke of the Birmingham School, and his own revelations and decision to leave home in the Northeast, put off college and go down south to make a difference.  He introduced us to Sammy Younge, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and countless others who might never make it into our textbooks.  Most of all he spoke about the power of collective action, an idea that seems to elude so many people today, particularly young people color.  And in a post-civil rights, post-apartheid, post-911 world, this singular idea can still motivate thousands, because it affords group agency to the seemingly agent-less.  I should also mention that this concept was recently (re)worked in Tina Rosenberg’s Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Upon listening to some of the examples Rosenberg draws upon, I think it fair to say within the context of the U.S.; that to understand the Freedom Riders, why they did what they did, putting their lives, careers and familial relationships on the line, is to gain insight into every other major sociopolitical movement in this country since this time.

We are, each of us indebted to them and others who fought with life and limb, paintbrush and pen for racial and economic equality.  While many of these battles are still waging, and some would argue the first one never expired, I am particularly inspired by their stories as I move from being a student of the movement to a scholar with a lifelong commitment to educating others on these and other events.  When I think of this time I know that as someone born 13 years after Dr. King was assassinated, and 16 years after Malcolm X was assassinated, that I should not romanticize this struggle, because even as with the recent non-violent uprising in Tunisia that brought the departure of a long-standing dictator and power structure, there are always those like Mohammed Bouazizi and Sammy Younge Jr. who perish before victory is realized.  So instead, when I think of this time and the anniversary of these important events, I am reminded of a T-shirt that I have which has a picture of Rosa Parks in her now famous mug shot and it simply states, “I am because she was.”


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Related Links:

Freedom Rides:  An American Experience Documentary

LIFE Images  Civil Rights: The Freedom Riders – Photo Gallery – LIFE.

Freedom Riders 50th Anniversary Events in Mississippi

Check the web including church sites, schools/colleges, and civil rights organizations  for events happening in and around your area.   Also look for programs on PBS


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