June 01, 2011
By Jay Gartman
As an 8-year-old curious boy growing up in Miami, Fla, in the late 1950’s I remember Mom taking me, my brother and sister on a field trip to City Hall. The circa WWII building is nothing to boast about, but it sits atop palm-tree-speckled Dinner Key, alongside the picturesque blue waters of Biscayne Bay. That view is still a sight to behold.
I’m quite sure that the memories I have from that day trip aren’t what Mom intended, because what captured my attention were the water fountains on one side of the one-story white-washed building. Divided by bathrooms, one fountain was labeled “Coloreds Only” and the other “Whites Only.” And I wondered what the difference was between the water coming out of each. I didn’t understand why Mom yanked me off the milk carton I was using to sample the “Colored Only” fountain that day.
Three years later I understood. It was 1961, and my parents were discussing an article in The Miami News. Fisk University students, were risking assault and worse by baseball bat and lead pipe toting mobs, and/or police arrest while riding on public Greyhound and Trailways buses throughout the Deep South. Committed to non-violence, they were protesting the existence of segregated facilities, such as bus terminal waiting rooms, lunch counters and restrooms that existed despite two US Supreme Court decisions that struck down those laws. These 18 black and white students were soon joined by 300 other “Freedom Riders,” who bused in from all over the country, and as a result of their bravery, the walls imposed by Jim Crow laws came tumbling down. This movement, despite the fears of its participants, opposition by politicians and even lack of support by civil rights leaders was recounted vividly May 16, 2011—on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rider movement—in a two-hour episode within the public broadcasting “American Experience” series. You can watch it at the PBS web site.
While viewing this program I wondered: First, could I muster the same courage displayed by Freedom Riders to risk my life if I were ever challenged to right an inhumane wrong? Could I write my last will and testament before going on such a journey (Many Freedom Riders were beaten bloody by the mobs, most suffered years of emotional trauma and depression, one committed suicide and one drank himself to death)? I don’t think anyone knows how they would react under those emotionally charged conditions, but I’d like to think I would have whatever it takes to make that commitment. Also, why is it we never learn from the past? The Freedom Riders were trying to gain liberties supposedly already earned through the deaths of 700,000 Union and Confederate soldiers nearly 100 years before. Each minority group traditionally engages society to gain the same freedoms already won by another minority. Gays and lesbians are struggling to gain rights already won by African-Americans, and Jews before that and Italians before that and Irish before that? Why don’t these basic human rights transfer?
A few books enlightened me more about the Freedom Rider movement, and I would recommend them to anyone who wants to learn more: “Children of the Movement” by John Blake, “The Children” by David Halberstam and “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. The most definitive history of the movement is “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice” by Raymond Arsenault.