Monday, July 24, 2023

The generation of the Freedom Riders

The courageous Catherine Burks-Brooks passed in early July in Birmingham, Alabama, at the age of 83. The New York Times ran an extensive and moving obituary for her this weekend (link), and the piece is important reading in today's world of "forgetting" of our recent history of racist violence in the United States. Burks-Brooks and her fellow Freedom Riders risked their lives to bring Jim Crow racism and oppression to an end. Violent organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, abetted by segregationist public officials, did everything in their power to prevent change in the segregated south. And yet the Freedom Riders continued.

Burks-Brooks was an inspiring example in 1961 when, as a senior at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University, she joined with hundreds of other courageous young people in defying the Jim Crow South's stubborn refusal to comply with the 1946 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racial segregation on interstate buses and trains (link). With leadership and support from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality, nonviolent but determined groups of students boarded buses in defiance of racial segregation of seating. The violence that met these Freedom Riders was brutal and unchecked. 

And yet these young people persisted, and as a result of their courage and persistence the Kennedy administration finally asked the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce the law of the land. 

It is vital to recall that the struggle for justice and equality was not waged on "social media", and it was not simply a question of safely demonstrating in the streets. Rather, it was an organized resistance to injustice that exposed these young Americans to violence, jail, and occasional murder. Only three years later civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were brutally and viciously murdered in Mississippi. This atrocious crime occurred only months after the Mississippi murders of Medgar Evers, Clifton Walker, Henry Dee, and Charles Moore, and two years before the murder of Vernon Dahmer. Burks-Brooks herself was jailed several times and spent nearly a month in a brutal Mississippi state prison. The stakes were incredibly high, and these young people had the courage to rise to the task. 

It is a very sad fact that the most cherished goals of these young heroes from sixty years ago are still in doubt: full racial equality, and full rights of democratic participation and voting. The continuing effort in southern states to limit voting rights and to gerrymander districts to reduce the impact of African-American voters; the effort by politicians in states like Florida and Texas to tell "happy stories" about the history of slavery and racism in the region; the persisting disparities that exist across racial groups (of all incomes) with regard to health, education, employment, and property ownership -- all of these facts show that the work that brave young activists like Catherine Burks-Brooks and her contemporaries is not finished. And the threats and violence that she and others faced with equanimity should remind us that resisting injustice is never easy, never safe -- and yet permanently important for ourselves and future generations.

Governor DeSantis, how do you propose to address the wide gap in health system performance scores between black and white Floridians (link)? Are you satisfied that "Mortality amenable to health care (per 100,000 population)" for black Floridians (137) is 67% higher than that for white Floridians (82)? Do your job, Governor, and stop lying about the history of racism and slavery in the United States!

1 comment:

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I am glad this has been an up and down summer, weatherwise. I feared summary unrest and/or violence and, so far, such has not been the case...lots of words of war, but, little action. So far, so good. Anyone wishing to jump all over this is free to do so, so let me disclaim right here. I am not talking about shootings and other random violence. Those things are just signs of broader problems of a different sociological stripe. I am also glad I did not try container gardening tomatoes this year. That would have been disappointing. My upstairs neighbor's plants are suffering---so, I am happy I did not spend my time and effort. Keep up your good work.