Commentary: The new Freedom Riders

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT)
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT) MCT

The homeless man shifts on the park bench beneath a blanket of carpet padding as the college students gather around. Only his hand is visible, poking from beneath the padding.

We are in his bedroom, a public park across the street from the Art Deco building that, in 1961, was a Greyhound bus station. It was from this site — and a Trailways station that sat across the street in a building that no longer exists — that the first busload of Freedom Riders departed on May 4, 1961. So it is from this spot that this symbolic 50th anniversary Freedom Ride of 40 college students also embarks.

They are like that vision of America you learned in civics class: black and white and Muslim and Christian and Asian and Hispanic, singing and laughing together. I get a sense the homeless man will be happy when we get out of his bedroom and let him sleep.

After a few more minutes, we do.

The bus — eschewing the interstate for the route taken by the original Freedom Riders — leaves the city via 14th Street, passing the monuments erected to Washington and Jefferson and their ideals, and between them, the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a monument to the failure of ideals. Fourteenth Street becomes U.S. 1, following the route of the old Warrenton Pike which, historian Ray Arsenault tells us, was the route Union soldiers took into Virginia for the Battle of Bull Run in 1861.

This is a bus full of song. The young people are fond of breaking into spontaneous choruses of one of the Freedom Riders’ signature freedom songs, changing the lyrics as the Freedom Riders did, to suit the moment.

"Buses are a-comin’, oh yes."

"Better get you ready, oh yes."

"It’s Mother’s Day, oh yes."

More than song, this is a bus full of ferment. These young people, 40 of them, chosen from a thousand applicants, are what Congressman John Lewis might call "troublemakers" in the good sense. Like Lewis, half a century ago, these campus activists are dedicated to upsetting an onerous status quo, leading the fight in their various communities against a wide range of social dysfunction from Islamophobia to violence against women to hunger and homelessness to racism.

A few days ago, they heard Lewis describe what he called his lowest moment during the Freedom Rides, when he found himself in maximum security in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Penitentiary.

A guard told him, "Sing your goddamn freedom songs now. We’ve got niggers here. They will beat you, they will eat you."

Lewis told the young people, "They ordered all of us to line up. We stood against the wall and they ordered us to take off all our clothing. They tried to destroy our sense of dignity." But, said Lewis, he never gave up, never lost hope.

And the students also heard Diane Nash, another hero of the Freedom Rides, challenge them to understand that voting "does not fulfill your responsibilities as a citizen. Stop leaving needed change in this country to elected officials. Take nonviolent direct action, but take it into your own hands."

So the conversation on the bus among these high-achieving, socially conscious students is sharp and well-informed in dissecting what they see as the failures of American leadership on matters of social justice from President Barack Obama on down. They seem to see it as their role, much as the original Freedom Riders did, to push politicians to go beyond the political. As student Pete Davis puts it, "Change only comes from below."

And change is a-comin’, oh yes.


Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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