|photo/Library of Congress|
Keenly aware that the American Civil War started 100 years before, in April 1861, I was seeking my own battlefield glory in a war somewhere. So I scarcely gave a thought to the courage displayed by strangers risking life and limb to expand civil rights to “colored people,” as African-Americans were widely called at the time. Like most Americans, I think, I hadn’t a clue what “nonviolent civil disobedience” meant.
As a recent PBS special, “Freedom Riders,” graphically shows, the black and white volunteers who nonviolently sought to integrate long-distance buses and public restrooms and restaurants at transportation stations in the
“Nothing would deter these Freedom Riders - not beatings, not burnings, not racist mobs,” noted Gregory Kane, the conservative Republican columnist, in a recent tribute to the men and women who mounted a nonviolent campaign to accomplish what Civil War battles and other clashes over the course of a century could not.
I got some insight into the impact of the Freedom Riders campaign when I was stationed at
Amid training for waging war via helicopters in
Having already served a tour in Vietnam, and declined a promotion to stay in the military and return to the war in Indochina that seemed wantonly senseless, I signed up for classes at a base branch of a nearby state college while awaiting my discharge papers. It was there that I met a professor who astounded the globe-trotting, way-of-the-world-savvy soldiers in his psychology class.
The professor noted that he had been teaching at a famous university up North and decided to come back to teach in his home state. “Why?” a seasoned sergeant blurted out.
Alabama in the winter of 1964-65 exuded the tensions of a third world country rumbling with pent-up hostilities between authorities and an emboldened group of natives protesting a culture of violent oppression. My brother was in Air Force training at another base in
Well, the civilian professor quietly said to his class of soldiers, this is where the fight is to change my part of the country for the better. He came back to teach, at Troy State College, he said, to help fellow white Southerners understand it was time to change their minds, their culture, their psychology, when it came to their fellow citizens who happened to have a darker hue.
Some day, I’ll remember that professor’s name. What I thought at the time was, that man just displayed more courage on behalf of other people’s welfare than I’d seen in an army lording it over people of another race while playing war on the far side of the world.
As for the civil rights protesters battered by state and local police in Selma, Alabama: On their third attempt to march to the state capitol, on March 21, 1965, the route was impressively lined by thousands of U.S. Army troops, National Guard members called up by the federal government, FBI agents and federal marshals, arrayed to protect 300 marchers. Some 25,000 people joined the last leg to the state capitol building for a rally for voting rights for black Americans.
That night, a white woman from
“As a result of this historic event, the [federal] Voting Rights Act was passed on May 26, 1965,” notes a brief history on the National Park Service website for the
As my old professor in
For more information: