A piece by Leonard Pitts on the editorial page of my hometown newspaper highlighted an event that on the surface appears anti-climatic but represents an event that was history making and changed the social structure for blacks in the South and around the country. It was a tribute to those Freedom Riders 50 years ago who were intent, as Pitts says, to “take up the mission of testing segregation ordinances in the South”. Five who survive today rode into New Orleans a week ago on a bus that preceded this generation’s Freedom Riders, “a group of college kids who have joined this commemorative voyage”.
I wasn’t quite 13 years old in that deadly summer of 1961 but I recall it vividly and the conflicting feelings I had about racial inequality at the time. As a product of the South I was all too familiar with the prejudices of whites toward blacks yet as a devout Catholic at the time I couldn’t mesh the attitudes of bigots with the biblical New testament teachings I was raised with. Kennedy was then President and as a fellow Catholic, along with his brother Robert, they gave me some encouragement to follow my feelings that race discrimination was wrong. Why, I would ask myself did blacks have to sit at the back of the bus, drink from separate public water fountains and use separate public bathroom facilities if Jesus himself associated with beggars, prostitutes and tax collectors? These people had character flaws for society to object to. Blacks simply were scorned because of their color.
I was also familiar enough with American history that spoke to the equality of all men and women. Yet I would see community leaders viciously condemn those blacks who expected their fair share of civil rights along with whites who either lived amongst us (they were few and far between) or who traveled from outside our cultural boundaries and stood up to the racial hatred represented in the acts and comments of people like George Wallace, Bull Connor and Lester Maddox.
I eventually reconciled myself to the movement and identified with those few whites who supported the efforts of Martin Luther King and other blacks, if in spirit only. When called a “nigger lover” by an acquaintance on one occasion I retorted “No, I’m not. I’m just not a ‘nigger’ hater”. The “N” word was used too loosely then. It seemed at the time to validate what we were all taught in our church services about Paul’s gospel of love and our American heritage initiated by disenfranchised groups who fled Europe for a better life.
It’s hard to think at one time in my life that an event as simple as people coming into Southern cities to encourage those principles that we were all raised with would wound up facing violent objections by people familiar to me. The remnants of such racial prejudice are still with us in the South and other parts of the country but they are now the exception rather than the norm.
Blacks have made great strides in personal freedom since those days. Other than the occasional action or comment by a few bigots who get way too much media attention, there is little left to resemble the division that once existed in its place just two generations ago. Today however, we run up against new barriers within society that discriminate against people for their religious views, economic condition or their partner lifestyle choices.
The same moral standards that were in place back in 1961 that eventually convinced the majority of people to do the right thing are still present today. But their presence alone is insufficient to sway the minority who insists that only one religion should dominate, that profit motives should have precedence over need and that anything other than heterosexual relationships are strictly verboten. It will once again take the physical efforts of those willing to sacrifice the verbal and sometimes physical assaults by those who fear change; a change that simply asks that they do to others what they expect for themselves and fully grasp Jefferson’s words that ALL men and women are created equal.
There are those who would argue that full liberty and freedom for all doesn’t mean we should trash traditional values. I would agree. But I would also add that traditional values that are only designed for a select few are not morally based. Only values that are inclusive of all people in all walks of life at their heart are morally sound.
People who cheat, steal and hurt others physically and emotionally exists within all cultures. ALL of them. We shouldn’t exclude those cultures because some of their members are defective nor should we presume that such social defects are beyond human and divine grace. The energy we waste building walls demonstrates to those who have yet attained our level of freedom that perhaps democracy is not all it’s cracked up to be so why bother. It’s a work in progress that must be dealt with everyday in every corner of our society.
We are coming up on Memorial Day that salutes the lives of men who, we are told, died that we may keep and extend our freedoms. Let’s hope we eventually live up to their sacrifice and not sully their death with shallow exceptions to the concept of liberty and justice for all.