Wednesday, May 11, 2011


This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, a group of young men and women who bravely boarded interstate busses en route to Southern states, in an effort to challenge racial discrimination laws. The activists would be seated interracially on public transportation, and blacks would even sit up front, which was strictly outlawed at the time. Predictably, the Freedom Riders met with mob violence in various Southern cities, with the most vicious attack culminating in a bus being set on fire and the door blocked so riders could not disembark. Somehow they did manage to exit the bus, only to be brutally beaten. Efforts to lynch some of the riders failed, but mob violence would follow the group city to city. Whites who tried to help the battered blacks were roundly ostracized by their communities. I could describe the subsequent bloody beatings with iron pipes and wooden planks, the inhumane treatment of those who ended up in the Mississippi State penitentiary and the law enforcement officers who stood by and allowed the riders to be battered into unconsciousness. But it’s all in the history books and archives of the civil rights movement.

Instead, it seems appropriate to mention something that happened many years before the 1961 Freedom Rides. It was called the Journey of Reconciliation, a bus trip by 16 men, (above, right) blacks and whites, out to accomplish what their 1960s counterparts would replicate. It was led by Bayard Rustin,(left) a 37-year-old black man with a long history of battling against the widespread racial discrimination of the early to mid-20th century. Today, the late Rustin is not a household name like other civil rights activists, but it was he who really stood up to the white establishment and fought racial inequality. Later in his life, he tried to do much the same thing for the civil rights of gay Americans. Rustin was a man who truly walked the walk.

Here is what Rustin and his Journey of Reconciliation companions (eight blacks and eight whites) were up against in 1947. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that racial discrimination in interstate travel defied the U.S. Constitution. Rustin and company were out to see how that was playing in the deeply racist Southern states. Much like Dr. Martin Luther King, with whom Rustin (right, pictured with Dr. King) would later ally himself, the 16 men planned on non-violent, civil disobedience. As we later saw in the 1960s urban riots, non-violence is tough to maintain, but Rustin and his cohorts did it. But here is what happened: Along the way, five blacks and five whites were arrested at various times. Rustin himself ended up on a chain gang in North Carolina, where the treatment was reportedly so brutal and inhumane that the chain gang system was ultimately outlawed.

It has been widely reported that after Rustin was arrested in North Carolina, the presiding judge said this to the white members of the Journey: "It's about time you Jews from New York learned that you can't come down here bringing your niggers with you to upset the customs of the South. Just to teach you a lesson, I gave your black boys thirty days on the chain gang and I give you ninety."

Such was life in the deep South (even in the judicial system) in the 1940s. Remember, this was way before Rosa Parks (below, left) took her seat at the front of the bus. It was also long before the landmark ruling Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court said segregating schools was unconstitutional. It wasn’t until 1967 that blacks and whites could even legally marry in this country, and that too had to be dictated by the Supreme Court. It was, to understate it…a different time in America.

By 1961, when the Freedom Riders boarded busses to push the segregation envelope to its extreme, the U.S. was still deeply rooted in its post-slavery mentality. Blacks were begrudgingly tolerated as long as they shut their mouths and didn’t cross any societally-dictated lines. But often forgotten is the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation. Rustin and his group were pioneers. The Freedom Riders were soldiers in the seemingly never-ending war on racism.

Having lived through those tumultuous 1960s, when the Civil Rights movement reached its bloody zenith, I still say that racism today is far more pervasive and divisive than it was then. Back then, society was unfortunately organized around racism. Today it is not. Today racism is more deceptive. You see it in the offices you work in, when equally qualified individuals are up for the same job, but the white male establishment chooses one of its own for the promotion. You see it in school, where the black kids all sit together in the classroom across from the white kids. You see it on television, where it is rare for a lead role in a fictional drama to be played by a black actor. You see it in the movies, where romantic stories are generally built around white characters.

So, nobody’s using separate drinking fountains anymore, or banning entire population segments from lunch counters, or giving whites preferential treatment on public transportation. Instead, racism rears its aged head in more institutional ways. How many fingers do you have left when you try to count the number of black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies? What’s the percentage of black elected officials in the 112th U.S. Congress? I’ll help you on that one – it’s 9.66%, far below the percentage of black Americans, according to the U.S. government’s own stats. How many blacks make it in to med school in America? According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, in 2010 there were almost 50,000 active white enrollees in the nation’s medical schools, vs. just over 5,500 blacks.

Unfortunately, activism is not the main event in America anymore. Where are the Bayard Rustins of the world now? Twenty-five years from now will Congress, corporate America, television, movies and med schools still be lily white? I’m an optimist, but I’m also a realist. Twenty-five years ago was 1986 – do you sense a major shift in the arduous climb toward racial equality since 1986? Neither do I. But still, I can’t help thanking Bayard Rustin and his associates, and the many courageous Freedom Riders of 1961 for all that they did. I’m waiting for that same new day in America that I was waiting for back in the 1960s, but no matter what happens next, what happened back then was nothing short of exceptional.

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