Where are this generation's Freedom Riders?
May 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, the famous bus rides that took mixed groups of black and white men and women through a brutally violent “tour” of the southern United States (starting in Washington, D.C. and making it as far as Birmingham and Anniston, Alabama) in protest of Jim Crow segregation the oppression faced by black people across the country.
A documentary, simply and aptly titled Freedom Riders, debuted on PBS May 16th and described in vivid detail with original interviews of the participants the goals and adversity faced by the brave individuals who boarded those two buses. They recounted tales of being beaten unconscious by mobs of over a 1000 and having their buses set on fire by opponents of their mission. It was a reminder of an excruciatingly ugly portion of our history, but also a necessary look at the monumental events that have helped shaped our perspective.
One of the more striking aspects of this movement is the age of the participants. These were college students. Hank Thomas was a student at Howard University and 20 years old at the time of the freedom ride. Jim Zwerg left Fisk University at age 21 to join the movement. Charles Person, a former Morehouse student, was among the youngest at a tender 18. They had just become recognized legally as adults and were already turning their young lives over to activism. Inevitably the question arises: if young people were willing to risk their lives 50 years ago for the cause of equal rights, where are the youth activists of today willing to do the same?
I’m 24 years old. I was born into the era of Reagan’s War on Drugs and became an adult during Bush’s War on Terror. There have been no shortage of social/political causes that require the attention of dedicated activists in my lifetime. What there hasn’t been is any concentrated and sustained movement toward social justice.
We haven’t been silent. Contrary to the criticisms my generation finds ourselves on the end of, we have not been completely apathetic. Politicized by the attacks of 9/11 and the War in Iraq, we have had no choice but to be engaged. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, it was young people volunteering their time to go down to New Orleans to clear debris and rebuild homes while the government neglected the needs of the people. When six teenage boys were facing charges of attempted murder for what amounted to a schoolyard fight, it was college students at the forefront of the movement to fight for justice on behalf of the young men who had been dubbed “The Jena 6.” And when a charismatic U.S. Senator from Chicago made the call, young people organized and showed up to the polls in record numbers to ensure he was elected as the first African-American president in this nation’s history.
The problem isn’t solely apathy, though there is plenty of that going around. We show up when we truly believe in something. Unlike the Freedom Riders and other civil rights activists, however, we have yet to identify an issue on a grand enough scale to unite us across borders and backgrounds. We are also a bit impatient. I often say we are the “microwave generation.”
From fast food to high speed Internet access, we are accustomed to things happening quickly and receiving immediate feedback/results. The causes we have taken up are usually relatively quick fixes rather than long term movements that would require major sacrifices. We don’t like to be inconvenienced. That requires a different type of resolve.
Black youth in particular have in many ways been taught that the fight is over. Growing up, our parents and grandparents groomed us to walk through the doors they worked hard to gain access to, not find ourselves chained to them and subsequently arrested in the name of freedom. We have been charged with acquiring higher education, business ownership, and wealth creation.
For us, changing the media representation and image of black people in this country has become a focal point of new age activism. Our battlegrounds have changed, and as such so have our tactics. They may be unrecognizable to activists of yesteryear, but we have to react to the particular needs of the times we live in rather than dwelling on the past.
But our history holds lessons that are important as well. The willingness of the Freedom Riders to put their lives on the line the for a cause bigger than themselves is an admirable quality worth emulating. There are issues that demand our attention. Education and prison reform immediately come to mind as two social justice causes that affect us nationwide and carry grave consequences if we fail to address them soon.
We have mastered new tools and knowledge bases that could serve us well in responding to the changing landscape. The only thing left to do is to locate the resolve within ourselves, the way our ancestors did, to stand and fight.