On the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Remember Today’s Young Activists

A shorter version of this post first appeared at Campus Progress.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, when 13 young black and white activists boarded a bus from Washington, D.C., heading south to challenge the segregated interstate bus system and the system of Jim Crow racism as a whole.

A bus carrying the Freedom Riders was burned by whites near Anniston, Alabama. Photo from Birmingham Public Library.

It’s worth remembering today that the rides, which were met with stunning repression and violence and were a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, were carried out by college students and young people who were willing to put their own bodies on the line in order to push the movement for racial justice forward. Today, young people continue to lead the fight for justice—particularly around the issue of immigration reform.

In 1960, the Supreme Court ruled in Boynton v. Virginia that segregation in interstate travel was illegal. Though federal law had outlawed such racist practices, they continued throughout the Jim Crow South—the infamous “colored only” waiting rooms and sections of buses were ubiquitous. The idea of the Freedom Rides was to dramatize this reality, to publicly challenge the violent racism just beneath the surface of those waiting rooms and backs of buses. Riders knew that such actions would provoke the wrath of racist whites, which would create a public crisis that would force the federal government to intervene. On both counts, the young riders were successful.

The Freedom Ride would not have succeeded, however, if its participants had not been willing to both suffer grave injuries, allowing for the violent reality of Jim Crow to be broadcast in images throughout the nation, and buck the national political leadership seen as allies to African Americans that urged restraint. The Kennedy administration, for example, was long known as a civil rights ally, but Attorney General Robert Kennedy urged restraint on the part of the riders; when they continued to put themselves in harm’s way and subject themselves to escalating racist violence, the administration eventually was forced to intervene on behalf of the riders.

It is doubtful that anyone but a group of gutsy young activists could have set themselves to this task. They had not been in the movement long enough to worry about what their supposed allies would think of their actions—they recognized that even politicians who claimed to be on the side of civil rights occasionally had to be forced to do the right thing. And as young people who had yet to be beaten down by the world’s repeated disappointments, they were still idealistic enough to believe that the violence and even potential death they could face as a result of the Freedom Ride was worth it. As the movement built off of the momentum generated by the riders, their wager proved correct.

While the sense of urgency and militancy that infused the Freedom Rides has largely dissipated in today’s movements for justice for African Americans, the youth wing of the immigrant rights movement seems to best carry the spirit of the rides in their fight for equal rights and legislation like the DREAM Act. Undocumented young people have put their ability to live in the U.S. on the line multiple times in recent years, engaging in public coming-out actions, where they unabashedly declare their unauthorized status to the world, and civil disobedience actions that have resulted in arrest.

Some veterans of the civil rights movement have stated explicitly that they see immigrant youth as following in the tradition of the Freedom Rides. At a recent protest and civil disobedience action against Georgia’s ban on undocumented students in the top five state universities, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA)—himself a Freedom Rider at age 21 who was severely beaten along the way—compared the fight for immigrant rights today to the fight for civil rights half a century ago.

Like the Freedom Riders, undocumented youth have been willing to take not only politicians who oppose them to task, but those who claim to be their allies. Last year, in the buildup to the introduction and failure of the DREAM Act in the senate, undocumented students were arrested in two different sit-ins in the offices of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), was a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act; the sit-in participants accused her of not acting quickly enough. Similarly, they sat in at Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-NV) office, where they called Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL)—who himself has been arrested for immigration reform—and accused him of not doing enough to push for the bill’s passage.

In remembering the actions of a small group of people who faced death to fight for equality for African Americans, it’s worth considering today how young people have the unique potential to push movements to their full potential. After all, it appears that some young members of today’s movements for justice are already aware of that potential.

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