COMMENTARY | Despite the mythology of Southern hospitality and a warm welcome, the Deep South, in 1961, was not a very hospitable place for anyone not white, Christian, and racist. The Freedom Riders of 1961 found that out as they set out to desegregate Southern bus terminals.
Met with beatings, bus burnings, rampant hatred and vitriolic racism, the Freedom Riders persisted, setting in motion events that still resonate today. Looking to follow up on the brave stand taken by Rosa Parks in 1955, the Freedom Riders took the bus protests to a new level. How did their actions impact the civil rights movement, and other campaigns for justice?
Transforming the Civil Rights Movement
The unwavering bravery of the Freedom Riders in the face of reprehensible violence and police inaction brought increasing attention to the civil rights movement thanks in a great deal to the rising number of homes in America with televisions. People in other regions of the country saw racial injustices around them too, but some had no idea just how entrenched prejudice and hatred was in the post-Reconstruction South.
Remembering the Freedom Riders of 1961 reminds us of a time when simply riding in a bus not according to racial seating plans was enough to get a person beaten nearly to death.
Influencing other actions for rights and peace
The Freedom Riders began a model for protests that has been used for everything from anti-war protests to the ginned-up, Fox News-promoted, “Restoring Honor” event Glenn Beck held in Washington, D.C., last August.
Bus loads of protesters against the Vietnam War filling Washington helped bring an end to that conflict. The call to “get on the bus,” which was a rally cry for the Freedom Riders, has been used countless times.
The election of President Barack Obama
To many young people who voted for Obama in the election of 2008, his racial background was a non-issue. What they may not realize is that without trailblazing real patriots like the Freedom Riders, it would not have been possible.
No, President Obama did not do well in the South. President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, was correct when he reportedly said to an aide after signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, “We have lost the South for a generation.” In reality, it may be much longer than that.
Still, the fact that Obama did well enough nationwide to win very much has roots in the civil rights movement, and owes a nod to the Freedom Riders of 1961.