We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest: Remembering the Freedom Rides

May 24th commemorates the 1961 arrival of the first Freedom Riders into Jackson, Mississippi, where, in spite of Highway Patrol and National Guard escort, they were promptly arrested on charges that included incitement to riot, breach of peace, and failure to obey a police officer.

Upon reading about the 13 riders and their thousands of followers who boarded Interstate buses bound for the segregated South, my first reaction was awe at their courage.

My second reaction was the understanding that an activist’s work never ends.

The injustice addressed by these individuals in the sixties (systemic racism) is one of the same persistent issues present in our work here at the Ella Baker Center as we challenge mass incarceration and the War on Drugs.

Activism as a Life Path

I think individuals or organizations in our society (including me) often get in the habit of thinking that activism is a means of achieving a finite goal.  For example, “ending mass incarceration”, “eradicating poverty”, or even “ending the war on drugs.”

But reading stories about the Freedom Riders negates this way of thinking.  Rather, with a historical perspective in hand, I realize that activism is a life path that means following your heart.

Let me explain: I believe that every activist does what she does because she intimately knows a better world living in her heart.

The Freedom Riders could see a world where all people were given equal access to the resources they needed regardless of the color of their skin. Yet the gap between their internal vision and the external world was large in 1961, as Southerners continued to enforce Jim Crow laws.

Closing the Gap Between Our Vision and the World As It Is

Despite the challenge, the Freedom Riders felt compelled to act because of their vision.

After three weeks of hundreds of protesters continuing to board interstate buses, facing personal attack and arrest, on May 24th Attorney General Robert Kennedy demanded that the South desegregate interstate buses and terminals.  His direction, through the Interstate Commerce Commission, finally enforced an earlier Supreme Court ruling, and took effect in September 1961.

The Freedom Riders achieved an incredible victory and helped to close the gap between their vision and the world. But I don’t believe any Rider who is alive today would say that the world she lives in matches the world in her heart.

"We who believe in freedom cannot rest."  – Ella Baker, 1964

Systemic racism undoubtedly persists–the systemic targeting of people of color for drug offenses is just one example. Though I do believe in miracles, the gap between our vision and reality seems it will last beyond our lifetimes.

What Is Our Work All About?

Yet, if we cannot achieve the eradication of racism, poverty, and injustice, what is our work all about?

Rather than feeling discouraged by the persistence of these challenges or feigning that we have eradicated suffering when we have not, I believe that through telling stories about past victories we can learn about time and reevaluate our task. 

In remembering the past we realize that external change is possible and that small moments, such as boarding a bus in the face of danger, accumulate into wholly re-imagined societies.  But we also must own that injustice persists.

Our job therefore cannot be to achieve a single goal, but to commit ourselves day in and day out, through victories and failures, to living from the harmonious world we know in our hearts.

For not only does living from this place create a better world for generations to come, it creates a better world in the present, and it is what makes us come alive.

In honoring the brave actions the Freedom Riders and other members of SNCC and CORE took 52 years ago, let us thus internalize this wisdom: As long as there is suffering in the world, we have work to do.

What does the world in your heart look like?  What lessons have you learned from the Freedom Riders’ stories?  Please share in the comments below.