Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why they go: Freedom riders then and now

Here's an article about the 2011 Gaza Freedom Flotilla and the U.S. Boat to Gaza (one of our member groups), that appeared Friday on the blog of Washington, DC, newspaper The Hill. Hannah Schwarzschild is a Philadelphia-based attorney and Palestine Solidarity activist.

Fifty years ago next month, my father, then a 35-year-old refugee from Hitler’s Germany with a young wife and two small children at home, boarded a Trailways bus headed for Jackson, Mississippi.

Like the 427 other freedom riders who rode voluntarily into the terror that was the segregated South in May and June of 1961, my father set out to violate the illegal state laws that barred white-skinned people from sitting together with black-skinned people on public transit  - laws that were vigorously enforced not only by police but also by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Council. Only weeks before, a mob of angry segregationists in Anniston, Alabama had attacked and set fire to a bus with dozens of black and white freedom riders trapped inside.

My father’s purpose in joining that Freedom Ride was twofold: to pressure the federal government into enforcing the Supreme Court’s decision that racial segregation in interstate travel violated the U.S. Constitution; and, just as importantly, to focus public attention on the injustice, brutality and defiance of the Jim Crow South.

My father was lucky. By the time he was arrested and jailed, the worst of the violence against the Freedom Riders was already over. Still, he was one of the so-called “outside agitators” whom Alabama Governor George Wallace had accused of “provoking” violence by his defiance of local laws and customs. As such, he had no assurance of a safe return, or any guarantee that his government, the United States government, would protect him from the torches, snipers and attack dogs of the local KKK.