Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Lasting Lesson in Courage

photo/Library of Congress
In the spring of 1961, as I impatiently awaited graduation from high school, the news of the world was a blur to me. Unless there was a war zone or rumor of war involved, I paid little attention. So I don’t recall being aware of one of the big events of the time—the Freedom Riders challenge of racial color barriers in Southern states.

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 Deep South in 1961 were beaten by mobs of angry white men, arrested by local police and jailed by state officials. After a Greyhound bus that carried Freedom Riders was firebombed in Alabama and riders beaten at several stops, more than 300 civil rights riders were arrested and thrown into a Mississippi state prison, and a biracial group of 10 clergymen from the North were arrested for trying to eat together in an airport restaurant in Florida, the federal government stepped in and began enforcing non-discrimination laws that had been ignored for generations.

“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 Ft. Rucker, Alabama some three years after these events. The focus of the civil rights movement had shifted to Selma, Alabama, where bloody confrontations with local and state police over marches for voting rights made national television news coverage.

Amid training for waging war via helicopters in Vietnam, the infantry unit I was assigned to was put on alert to be ready to assert the federal government’s role in upholding the US Constitution in Alabama. Old-timers in the unit joked about having gotten campaign medals for being dispatched in previous years to Little Rock, Arkansas and other Southern flash points where furious white residents and their local officials tried to prevent "colored people" from attending segregated public schools and colleges.

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 Alabama and got caught up in a police action in the state capitol, Montgomery, against a civil rights protest. The off-duty GIs hit the ground and hunkered behind cars while cops with fingers on their triggers roamed the streets and screamed at the Air Force boys to get the hell out of town.

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 Detroit, Viola Liuzzo, was shot and killed while driving marchers back to Selma. The ambushers were Ku Klux Klan members who included an FBI informer. That roadside murder effectively was the last shot of the Civil War. The Selma to Montgomery march through Alabama stirred Americans to turn a big page of history.

“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 Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Deep in the heart of Alabama, the majority of Selma’s city council today is African-American, as is Mayor George Patrick Evans, a graduate of Troy State University.

As my old professor in Alabama said, this was a timely fight—and it took more courage to do it nonviolently in the face of brutal encounters with police and hate-filled mobs. Yet the legacy for human dignity spurred by the Freedom Riders is far more enduring than the official slogans shading the violence unleashed in Vietnam in the name of democratic rights many Americans were denied and had to fight for at home.

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