Commentary: The courage of the Freedom Riders

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. KRT

When he was 21, Ernest “Rip” Patton made out his will. He didn’t have much beyond an old set of drums he used in the jazz club gigs that helped him pay his way through college. He willed them to his parents, then climbed aboard a freedom bus bound for Jackson, Miss.

On the campus of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., there is a small museum commemorating him and the other Freedom Riders who converged upon the South in the spring and summer of 1961. One of its exhibits asks students whether they could “get on the bus” as the Freedom Riders did. Most of the answers scrawled below are enthusiastic and affirmative: “Definitely,” “Without a doubt,” “In a heartbeat.”

I shared this with Rip — everybody calls him Rip — the other day as we walked toward the bus that is carrying several original Freedom Riders, 40 college students and a lucky journalist or three through the South on a 50thanniversary commemorative voyage sponsored by PBS to publicize Freedom Riders, a new documentary. Rip, a courtly man, smiled as if at some private joke. But his thoughts were not hard to guess.

Everybody thinks they could get on that bus. It’s an easy thing to say. Then you remember the savagery, the violent attacks from people mortally outraged that these young men and women traveled in integrated groups and ignored segregation signs in bus-station restrooms and coffee shops. And you remember that the rules of engagement required pacifism: a willingness to get hit, and not hit back.

A bus was firebombed in Anniston, Ala. In Birmingham, police gave the Ku Klux Klan 15 minutes to beat riders to their heart’s content. Yet no Freedom Rider ever raised a hand in defense.

Get hit, don’t hit back. “You have to change your whole way of thinking,” Rip told me. “You have to love your fellow man, just like the Book says. He’s beating on you, kicking you, you’ve still got to love him.” It was not just a high Christian ideal, but also sound and effective strategy, the idea being that through the willingness to sacrifice your body, you made it clear as air to a watching world which side had the moral high ground, and which did not.

The proof of the strategy lies in the result: a nation transformed. And yet, even knowing that, the idea of it still makes you pause.

Get hit, and don’t hit back? It bespeaks not just commitment to nonviolence, but commitment. As Martin Luther King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

So it is easy, from the vantage point of 50 years, to say where you would have stood. Easy to say “Definitely,” “Without a doubt,” “In a heartbeat” after the cause has been vindicated, the buses have stopped running and the Klansmen have laid down their clubs. We all know the courage we like to think we would’ve had.

But ultimately, that is history as parlor game, a question that is as unanswerable as it is irrelevant. It is enough to be thankful that Rip Patton and more than 400 other mostly young people found the courage that it took. One honors that courage not with parlor games, but by realizing history did not stop, nor challenges evaporate once the segregation signs came down.

There is exploitation of the poor. There is fear of the Muslims. There is hatred of the gays. There is mass incarceration of the blacks. So there is ample opportunity, still, today, to find a place to stand in moments of challenge and controversy.

After all, we are not defined by the courage we think we would’ve had.


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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