Juggling Act

Teaching my daughter about the Freedom Riders

Many people in the church sanctuary sat with hands covering their mouths, trying to contain their emotions as we watched a preview of a PBS film being released on the 50th anniversary of the “Freedom Riders.” Angry white men tossed firebombs through the window of a bus in Birmingham as 13 riders sat in fear of dying. They stumbled off the bus, gasping for air and praying for police protection that was taking its time coming to the rescue.

My 16-year-old daughter sat next to me, stiffly, silently feeling the power of the images like everyone else in the room. At one point, she leaned into me, and in a breathy whisper, said nothing more than “Wow.” I reached out and touched her hand.

Charlotte was a stop on a tour of college students retracing the route of the 1961 riders’, accompanied by a PBS film crew and some original riders’ as part of a national commemoration of the bold test a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled segregation in bus and rail stations was unconstitutional. In Charlotte, one of the riders’ couldn’t get his shoes shined at a segregated stand at the bus station and a “shoe-in” led to the arrest of one of the riders. In nearby Rock Hill, S.C., rider John Lewis, now a 12-term U.S. House member, was attacked and beaten.

Four of the original riders spoke and answered questions.  Helen Singleton and her husband, Robert, left California and joined the effort only days after she had a miscarriage. Another rider told how he left Tennessee without telling his mother and recalled stories of other college friends who signed up to ride the buses, ignoring the concerns of their parents eventhough they knew they could be injured or killed. Charles Jones, of Charlotte, started singing “Ain’t going to let nobody turn us around.”

One black woman told them, “It was difficult for me to watch that clip. I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart.” An elderly white woman said, “Tonight, I have come to appreciate what you worked for.”

My daughter was surprised and angered by the film, and found it hard to grasp the intensity of hate and violence that erupted in our country during the 1960s civil rights movement. But she was most stunned, she said, by seeing images of women dressed in the traditional Ku Klux Klan uniform. “I just didn’t think that women would do that,” she told me on the ride home. “I knew that men were in the Klan, but why would women do it to?”

She was impressed by the courage of riders and talked of how difficult it must have been for them to remain peaceful while being attacked and disrespected.

When I asked my daughter, what she learned from the experience that she can use in her own life, she said, “I learned that I have to be brave. I have to have courage.”

We’ll sit together in a few days and watch the full two-hour film. I’ll share some of my own memories of segregation.

Credit: PBS, WGBH

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