Wednesday, May 18, 2011

the transcendant courage of the freedom riders

As someone whose life has been shaped by the civil rights movement, seeing The American Experience show Monday night on The Freedom Riders was powerful. See here for the video.

The film underlines a dramatic point, one which few who seek to end injustices, fully take in. The oppression and danger must be terrible (the system of lynching, segregation, was as terrible as it is possible to be; there are still, however, such systems and struggles in the world). Those who seek nonviolently to change the fiercest wrongs can, at great cost, sometimes of their lives and always at near martyrdom, achieve victories (Many more die in violent struggles, and often for less result). A nearly unbearable feature of nonviolence is that those who are innocent, who but sit on the front of a bus, or together, white and black, or enter "white" facilities, are thrown to a state-led mob, torn apart. One resists (and this takes enormous courage), but one does not hit back or try to take the racists out, or defend herself except for covering up. No self-defense, no eye for an eye, no simple justice…Each is a sacrifice…

Many were courageous and broadly speaking, secular students like Diane Nash from Fisk in Nashvile. Some like John L. Lewis were students at American Baptist Theological Seminary, whose meditations on Christianity were vital to their participation. A mob surrounding and kicking and punching and smashing with pipes a prone person, as they did Jim Peck and Jim Zwerg and others, is a fearsome thing (each member of such a mob is a wretched coward).

I cannot fully express my admiration and gratitude for the transcendent bravery of these people who made the wrong of America right.*

Few are the struggles from below that are chronicled (power in this country is not held by the poor and potentially nonviolent, the demos…). One can see in this film a vast and amazing effort, like the many union and abolitionist/civil rights and women’s and anti-war struggles that preceded or succeeded it historically in America, that are shut out of the commercial media and most university curricula, even graduate programs. “Eyes on the Prize” was made in the late 1970s about the civil rights movement, but was unavailable except in university libraries until cds were made of it in the early 2000s. Here is a wonderful retelling, 50 years after the freedom rides occurred. This great American story the elite has been very reluctant to tell or have told. For even fundamental change – the destruction of segregation on the buses and in the country – can be at least temporarily won from below (The new confinement of 30-40% of young blacks to the prison system, either inside or in lives ruined by parole and probation, as well as the reapartheidization of American schools – see Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of America – has crippled some of this change).

Organized by CORE – an until then, not strong, northern organization - and James Farmer, some of the riders were initially not from the South, let alone the deep South (John L. Lewis was, however). CORE was not central – it was not even peripheral until then - to the movement in the South. In addition, King had led a struggle in Montgomery, Alabama, but Birmingham and Mississippi had been untouched by the movement. The freedom riders had only a limited or abstract understanding of the terror which would assault them; it was a possibility, not palpable.

Yet because of the years-long movement against segregation, CORE could call forth more support than it could organize itself. CORE had not been part of the eleven month mass movement in the Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-ins, conducted by students at Fisk, but mobilizing the community for a boycott, in Nashville...6 years of organizing in the South and great anger at racism from below had shaken the system, prepared the way for an effort from the North of blacks and whites, bound to be stigmatized and attacked as “outsiders,” to have a powerful impact. But the decision to send the freedom riders was a risky call, resisted among others by Martin Luther King.

In the great arc of the civil rights movement, from Brown v. Board in 1954 and the Montgomery bus boycott (1955) to Albany, Georgia and Birmingham in 1963, the rebellions in Northern - or Western - cities (Harlem 1964, Watts 1965) and the Civil Rights legislation to Selma and on, the freedom rides were a great initiative and impulsion in the middle. Perhaps the height of the movement was the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, organized initially by SNCC canvassing in the South. Led by Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, it sent an honorable delegation, elected by most people in Mississippi, to the Democratic Convention in 1964, to fight and try to replace the racist delegation, and created, despite the resistance of Lyndon Johnson and others, the transformation of the Democratic Party (the "Eyes on the Prize" film covering Freedom Summer and this transformation shows unusually how this movement shaped the country, bent the corrupt Democratic Party toward a common good).

The riders themselves set out with courage and principle – a belief that America “will be” (Langston Hughes) and in equality as a goal – and an inevitable naivete about the storm that would come. They went on two public buses, one Greyhound, one Trailways. One would be burned outside Anniston, Alabama by a mob, the people on the bus beaten ferociously. The second would be assaulted by a mob in Birmingham. A white student from Madison, who took the lead in Birmingham (who went out the door first to protect his black comrades) Jim Peck as well as Jim Zwerg, a transfer student at Fisk, who did the same thing days later in Montgomery, were broken. The photos of Peck who tried to lead the riders further to Mississippi and New Orleans, his face cut, his head patched, in tatters, his mouth aslant, are frightening to watch (James Farmer, who had been the leader of CORE and the riders, went off because his father was dying and came back for a the ride later in the week to Jackson).

In the “Eyes on the Prize” segment on the Rides, Frederick Leonard, who was on the Montgomery bus, tells the story of how since Zwerg went first, the mob in a frenzy about the “n—lover” or “race traitor,” engulfed him. Leonard and others who followed behind, were able to leap over a wall, fall 15 feet onto cars, run through restaurants or stores, escape the worst beating and go on to Mississippi later. There is a news film of Zwerg, lying in the hospital bed, saying with a force as strong as his body was weak, broken: “We will take killing. We will take beating. But we will keep coming back until we can ride from anywhere in the South to anywhere else in the South.”

Racism is a distortion of the human personality in which everything is bound up with preserving that domination, living in fear for a way of life outside oneself and in the stereotypes and lies that nurture it, a quality in which there is nothing else to the person – nothing individual - except this (in denying that German dasein is connected to individuality, see here, here and here, Heidegger testifies to this). Those who kill for a “master race” do so with little human left about them. One should still think they have souls that they might recover, stop with a mass movement their killing and eventually try to heal or reconcile with them, but look at the faces of the vigilantes - this is a desolate condition.

In contrast, those who came through this trial by martyrdom did so with a faith in equality, a love for human beings which gave them often a transcendant, hard to grasp for those not in the situation courage (this slipped in the long circumstance of abuse, some of the riders reported, after the burning of the bus, after being surrounded again and again, by the mob, even at the airport, their plane called off with a bomb threat, walking back onto the platform, racists sneering and lounging, for hours). But as the film testifies, the heroism of the riders lives and grows over time (50 years on and shining…). The film claims perhaps too much for the rides in the context of the civil rights movement. Still, the victory won by the freedom riders (and King at the church in Montgomery) was great and compelling – perhaps also as influential on the Kennedys as the film claims – and represented a great turning for the country.

Spiritually, what the riders did proved the effectiveness of nonviolence – of resistance to but no desire to kill enemies, of setting things right. of potential healing which grows over time. Racists (and Nazis) win for long periods. But they need darkness for their acts (again, one cannot call concentration camps and lynchings or torture acts of courage; the faces of those who do them are inhuman, the worst possibility represented by humanity. They are truly those who look in a mirror and there is no one there…).

I was talking with my 15 year old son and my wife about the film. He had been on an abbreviated vision quest at school and thought before that it would be hippie idiocy. When he went, he found it interesting although not deeply significant. The film was something different. As my wife emphasized, this movement was at the center of transforming the world. The Freedom Riders represent at the highest point the hope of a generation. This changed American history (Robert Kennedy gives a statement about the law afterwards, seeking equality before the ICC - Interstate Commerce Commission - on interstate buses, and even a prescient but halting statement about how a black person could become President some day) and promises greater changes in the world. It gave us all, whether brave or timid, across the board in the student anti-war movement and the counterculture and the women’s movement that followed, a knowledge, as deep as the bone, that a better world is possible.

When the first Freedom Ride was stopped by racist violence, the students in Nashville who had led the integration of the lunch counters downtown, met. James Lawson had advised them. A man who had refused to serve in Korea and gone to jail for three years, who then journeyed to India to study with Gandhians, Lawson thus played a fundamental role in the civil rights movement (he appears in the film and was apparently in Montgomery). Diane Nash was the leader of these students. Nash recognized, and led everyone else, in the realization that if nonviolence could be beaten down by violence, the movement would be set back or reversed (a further dark age of racism extended over the South and the country). It was a time in the world when the struggle for equality – the fight against colonialism – was surging and a communist-led peasant movement had reeemerged in Vietnam (see King’s 1967 “A Time to Break Silence” about the role of American imperialism as “strange liberators” - in the sense of Billie Holliday’s song “Strange Fruit,” those hung from the flowering trees of the South). All these struggles moved forward, unevenly, and together (what I call democratic internationalism in my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?).

But it took bold leadership to sustain the movement for the rides could have been broken. Diane Nash and the students from Fisk - independent, unorganized by and unknown to CORE - provided that. The courageous Justice Department agent working for Robert Kennedy, James Siegenthaler, had been raised in Kentucky by parents who never thought about the racism, as he himself as a child, he admits regretfully, almost unbelievingly, had not seen the women who had taken care of him; he would be beaten unconscious by a mob for trying heroically to protect a freedom rider from being further beaten. He spoke memorably with Nash over the phone. Following Kennedy’s instructions, he wanted to chill her out. He was (self-)important; he represented the President (at the Birmingham airport, the airlines had – regulated by the federal government, he noted sardonically – jumped for him), He even screamed at her to persuade the others not to come – you will get someone killed…. “This child” he said – she was of age, a student, but she spoke to Siegenthaler with a transcendant understanding which perhaps immediately and in any case, over time, humbled him, “Each of us filled out a last will and testament, last night,” she said. “We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence triumph over nonviolence.”**

She brought reinforcements in another freedom ride to Alabama. That was the decisive turning in the struggle – the determination of those who had been through the beatings and jails in Nashville, who would not let the movement die. The young led this movement as much as they did in Egypt and Arab spring recently (women workers bringing their families to Tahrir Square and the young woman, Asmaa Mahfouz, who gave a powerful call on Facebook for everyone to come to Tahrir Square on January 25 – National Police Day - to oppose the murder by the police of a teenager).

In Montgomery, as the film shows, civil rights leaders including King gathered in a church (the freedom riders who were able, also came). The people welcomed the freedom riders (they had acted from the outside, but they had become, through suffering and courage, a leading part of this great movement). A mob surged outside, threatening to burn the church. King spoke of the situation – they were fighting for justice - and for calm. King spoke with Robert Kennedy over the phone, urging him to take action. The federal government finally forced the Democratic governor Patterson to act. Patterson was a vicious racist and red-baiter – the “outsiders” had to go home, the trouble was entirely from the “outside,” ignoring the movement for equality in the South (no one, as King said is an outsider in America, and one might generalize this to humanity). One can hear his words – the clich├ęs of red-baiting or anti-radical ideology for 2000 years - today in the phrases of the tyrants Mubarak and Suleiman in Egypt, or in those of Assad in Syria or Ghadhafy in Libya, the gold-plated Pharoahs, who, when the people rise up, have only the deadest, emptiest lies to speak. If they lose, these words are simply blown away by the winds of history(even when fascists triumph, their words are empty).

But there were powerful international and national “outside” forces, the federal government, the Supreme Court, the horror of segregation making a growing impression in the North, the anti-colonial movements and newly free nations, the weight of global opinion and what is good in American tradition (the Bill of Rights, the blacks who were freed and fought for the Revolution, the abolitionists, Lincoln…). Pravda scathingly showed these horrors and hypocrises in the United States. The actions of racists - the segregationists in the Democratic Party - spoke deeply to people struggling for freedom worldwide. Curiously, these conditions helped to make for a Cold war compulsion for civil rights. See Mary L. Dudziak,Cold War Civil Rights(Bobby Kennedy, 7 years later, seemed to have reached a rather different and deeper conviction before he was murdered – see the 10th segment of "Eyes on the Prize").

“Freedom Riders” shows the debate in Montgomery in which the students hoped to recruit King (the first riders had tried before). He had always been leery of the freedom rides, though he had come deeply to support them and his leadership with the mob outside, about to burn down the Church in Montgomery, was memorable.***

King did not go. He spoke to them of how he expected to be crucified (the first attempts to assassinate him had been bombs at his apartment in Montgomery – he had left – when he was 26; no struggle was without attempts on the life of King; he was stabbed in Harlem, and assassinated at 39. Some had no patience with him and called him sarcastically “de lawd.” John L. Lewis remembers, in realization and sadness, that of course he was right. He could have gone, might have lived or might, more likely, have been an object of assassination just then. It was not yet his time.

Fortunately, the young people would not be put off. They went.

Governor Ross Barnett threw them into Parchmon Prison, a penitentiary, the place of the chain gang (this was a deal with Robert Kennedy, who, cynically, was trying to chill them out: no mob would attack them, he secured from Barnett, but in exchange, Barnett would punish them fiercely under Supreme Court-barred race laws. This deal shows what Kennedy and even the courageous Siegenthaler, working for him, then represented. But others heard Diane Nash’s call. Through the summer, some 4,000 came from around the country to be jailed in Jackson or be sent to Parchmon. As one woman recounted, she just heard about the struggle and made up her mind to go (being in Parchmon for a great cause, she said, beats working a menial job under segregation for a summer…Fighting for freedom is exhilarating, even or especially in jail). Nothing works simply or easily, but this struggle found its way to victory. It did not alone break segregation. But it went far to do so; the pattern of suffering for equality was laid even more deeply, to be extended over time.

I was a student then at Harvard which,as a University, did not have much awareness of the rides. In November 1961, I went on a freedom ride to Chestertown, Maryland and even here, the great, but scary stories of the rides were not really told to us. The movement was thus much more alive at all-black schools, including theological seminaries, in the South than at the great Northern bastions of racism (less formal than segregation but effective). If one wants to talk about education (about learning about freedom, about the possibilities of solidarity, about standing up), education was as much better in those schools then as the understanding of Diane Nash was compared to the idle political attempts of James Siegenthaler to chill her out.

We were thus both aware, and unaware of what was taking place. We were on the bus before the organizers told us that the picketers outside Woolworth’s had been attacked by a mob, led by the sheriff, the previous week, a woman thrown through the glass window. See here. None of us got off the bus, we picketed, and we all felt good on the way back. But though very sympathetic, I, for one, did not hurry back to join the movement.

I meditated on whether to go to Freedom Summer in 1964 (and didn’t because I had seen a bit of the South, far from Mississippi, and because I had not gotten more deeply involved in the movement earlier). My friend from grade school, Andy Goodman, did go and died in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

I cannot say how much I admire the courage of Diane Nash and John L. Lewis and James Cheney. They had lived with racism, come to the centers of racism in the South, and had the spirit and force of personality, at great cost, to change it (Lewis suffered beatings and a concussion at Selma). So did the others – Frederick Leonard, cellmate of Stokely Carmichael at Parchmon, is a remarkably humorous and forceful person (Stokely himself was there and does not figure quite in this film or that segment of "Eyes on the Prize"). And I salute the courage of Peck and Zwerg and Schwerner. Every person who went - and many of them speak in the film - are heroes.

Arab spring has broken out in Tunisia, and Egypt, and spread to Madison, and now Palestine. On the day commemorating the Nakba, young Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria tried to cross into Israel. They were met by the government with gunfire, some 12 murdered. The Palestinians were “ethnically cleansed” in 1948 and a process of driving them out, including in the territories occupied by Israel after 1967, continues to this day. See Akiva Eldar from Haaretz here (I will post on this issue directly later this week).

Last year, a relief shop, the Mavi Marmara set sail for Gaza. Attacked in international waters by the Israeli government, 9 nonviolent protestors were murdered. See here and here. Arab spring has brought down the Mubarak or Pharoanic wall. On one side, Gaza is now open and no longer a large open air concentration camp. But it still and the Palestinians as a whole have no airport, no control of trade (the Israeli government has just stolen $105 million in taxes on Palestinian goods sold abroad and thus through Israel, which had paid Palestinian officials, because of the emergence of a unified Palestinian government arranged by the post-democracy uprising regime in Egypt). As Alice Walker has recently said, the new flotilla, to go next month, is the freedom ride of our time. See here.

Israel, today, bears some resemblance to the South of once upon a time. It could withdraw from the settlements – or change the map from the 1967 border, allowing Palestinians some territory in Israel in exchange for the settlements – and allow a genuine two-state solution. It could decide to become a democracy based on the equal rights of each of its citizens. It has, instead, with American military backing, reared up as a great and threatening military power, trying to push the Palestinians out. But the sands are running in the glass. Most ordinary Arabs support the Palestinians against these injustices and are no longer held down by American-armed, pro-Israel tyrants. The new strategy of nonviolent protest, in the occupied territories and internationally, urged by Omar Barghouti and increasingly adopted by the Palestinian movement (the spirit of the first Intifada is at last triumphing over the second, failed Intifada), promises some real alternative. It can reach out to jewish supporters in Israel and abroad (a 96 year old Holocaust survivor was on the Mavi Marmara…). The ideas of the American Freedom Riders and of Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela are alive in the new movement. Arab spring has come to Palestine.

*In politics, in terms of mutual recognition, one might think Mandela and Tutu remade South Africa in vital respects in ways that violent revolutions have often failed to. Nonviolent change does not create the longtime simmering for revenge of slaughtered innocents, and even of family members and friends of those guilty of crimes.

**In Nashville, Diane Nash had confronted Mayor West on the steps of the City Hall. Leading a big march, the reverend C.T. Vivian had spoken out against segregation to West bitterly. But she then asked the Mayor directly: “do you think it is right that they take our money at the stores and won’t let us eat at the lunch counters?” He answered: “No, as a man, I don’t think it is right.”

Though backed by the Klan and some of the elite fiercely, that exchange let the air out of the segregationists’ tires. It was a kind of spiritual ju-jitsu that only a nonviolent movement – one which stops the crimes, but does not seek to murder the perpetrators, however right the latter might seem in a false and limited and inadequate kind of justice – can create. Real justice, as in South Africa, involves the possibility of political and social and individual healing.

Unsurprisingly, the others chose her to coordinate their activites going into the darkness of Mississippi.

***He forged, the film shows, a strong relationship with Robert Kennedy and the Kennedys. “Eyes on the Prize” shows JFK getting him out of jail during the 1960 election. But this was the moment that changed the relation of the civil rights movement to the federal government, made it closer, prepared the way for Kennedy's and Johnson's Civil Rights acts.


Andy Blair said...

Thank you for recommending this documentary. It is amazing.

Alan Gilbert said...

Glad you liked it. This is a powerful and exemplary movement.

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