**The clip above is one of the most touching moments on the Oprah Freedom Rider’s 50th Anniversary reunion. It is of Congressman John Lewis and Elwin Wilson recounting the day Wilson beat Lewis, and the apology that followed 48 years after.
Caught Roads to Memphis, a biopic on James Earl Ray (MLK Jr.’s assassin) on the American Experience series. Then, there was a bumper for the upcoming Freedom Riders documentary on PBS. (NYC! Channel 13 on 5/16, please!) I ended up catching the Oprah Special on the Ride’s 50th anniversary. I cried a lot while I was making meatballs and watching the show.
What moved me the most about the Freedom Riders was that they were so young and willing to give themselves to something larger. They had faith, so much faith! Typically, the media likes to portray these anomalies nowadays, these superheroes of people (or supervillains of enemies), who are the sole individuals capable of creating history. It never highlights the community that raised that person in tandem, or the small ways we collectively contribute to the world to make it more just. This doesn’t allow the average Joe Schmoe or Jenny from da Block to feel like they could be agents of concrete change in society or within their own lifetimes. You hardly hear about the Riders as a collection of people and the preparation t took to make that sort of statement, versus the frequency of high profiles names, like Rosa Park (that bus ride to change the world was also a planned, collective action), removed from the movement that sustained them, and propelled their causes. Other examples would be Malcolm X and MLK Jr. But my point is that the contributions of community groups like the Black Panthers to the average Joe aren’t as popularized in the mainstream, when compared to the amount of shine individuals get who are key people in movements. To me, it’s alienating, and probably used as damage control by the powers that be to quell brewing movements.
Which brings me back to my deep admiration of the The Freedom Riders. They were just regular people who made a choice. They chose to be part of a movement, part a community. They chose an idea and were ready to die for change – members of the Ride signed their last will and testaments before boarding buses to Mississippi.
I think that’s what we’re missing in my generation. I know so many of these pseudo-critical folks, or loose canon haters who have no allegiances. Scathing and critical, yet no leg work, no track record of working with other human beings. Incredibly talented and smart, but neither shaping discourse nor creating. (Talent nowadays is just another way we commit ourselves to upward mobility, but that’s a topic for another day.) The average American is built to be commitment phobic and overly cerebral. There’s great value placed on acquiring things, instead of developing a personality. There’s more emphasis on becoming an island, rather than relying on your community. There is a resistance in being labeled political, because that’s seen as being contrarian. We groom our individualist quirks like badges of honor, instead of examining the root causes of such insecurities and neurosis. My generation is playing itself out and looking sloppy.
To return to a time when people were willing to give up the comforts they’ve been trapped in is something truly refreshing and inspiring, especially after such a strange post-Bin Laden week. I’m moved by what the Riders accomplished with some planning, willingness, and gumption/balls. I wish we could have kept that spirit of resistance alive in the United States. It’s not that the 60s were ineffective, we just didn’t finish the job and inherit that momentum in a more cohesive way.
In learning the histories of various movements, whenever I hear about mobilizations initiated by students, I am in complete awe. College, High school, elementary school (watch this footage from a budget cuts rally in the San Francisco area, and tell me you aren’t touched by that 5th grader’s speech.) Sometimes, it makes me wish I found my love for movement much earlier than my mid-20s, so I could say that I was in high school leading my peers into the streets. Fist up in the air, with that resolute twinkle in my eye. Alas, I took a different path.
Heroes do not react out of fear or threat, they fight for what is just. Heroic acts are committed when we throw ourselves into the bravery we never knew we had. A hero’s mission is never about one person, but the overall contributions that we make to change the oppressions enacted in our collective society. Cheering in the streets when a man is killed makes you neither patriotic nor a hero. It is a person’s convictions and commitment to making this a better place for all Americans – that is the true face of patriotism and heroism. To make things better is an active choice we make everyday when we wake up.
Okay, maybe I played myself in being trite. But what’s real is this: the Freedom Riders are my heroes. I hope when I am faced with a similar decision, I have it in me to choose the right side of history.
Forward always, my people…