Fifty Years Ago Today, Young Freedom Riders Pushed the Civil Rights Movement Forward
by Micah Uetricht, campusprogress.org
May 4th 2011
Today 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.
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.
Micah Uetricht is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @micahuetricht.
Original Page: http://campusprogress.org/articles/fifty_years_ago_today_young_freedom_riders_pushed_the_civil_rights_movement/
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