Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

June 16, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Freedom Tour will teach, inspire

Half a century ago, in the early years of the civil rights movement, a group of courageous, mostly young Americans climbed aboard buses for rides that threatened their lives.

They were called Freedom Riders. And next week, three dozen high school students from all over Michigan will follow in their path, in an effort to learn something about a recent era that, to many their age, seems as far removed as the Crusades.

To those who are old enough to remember 1961, however, what happened to the Freedom Riders is vividly real. Their goal was to draw attention to the fact that southern states were openly defying the U.S. Supreme Court, which had twice ruled racial segregation on public buses unconstitutional. But southern states ignored that, and neither state or federal authorities did anything to enforce the law.

Frustrated, the Freedom Riders decided to challenge custom by riding buses in mixed racial groups, and having black riders refuse to obey orders to go to the back of the bus.

The reaction by southern whites was horrifically violent. One bus was firebombed; its riders barely escaped. Freedom riders were beaten by mobs wielding baseball bats and iron pipes, while local police did nothing. Walter Bergman of Detroit, later a law professor at Wayne State University, was beaten so badly he was left paralyzed.

John Lewis, today a congressman from Georgia, had his skull fractured. The Kennedy administration, worried about losing Southern support and about the Soviet Union using the rides for propaganda purposes, was lukewarm at best to the Freedom Riders.

Eventually, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent an assistant, John Seigenthaler, to see what was happening.

He was beaten and left unconscious. Eventually, outraged world and national opinion provoked the federal government to first order protection for the riders, then order the Interstate Commerce Commission to order the bus companies to comply with the law.

Text Only

Opinion Poll
AP Video
Captain of Sunken SKorean Ferry Arrested Raw: Fire Destroys 3 N.J. Beachfront Homes Raw: Pope Presides Over Good Friday Mass Raw: Space X Launches to Space Station Superheroes Descend on Capitol Mall Man Charged in Kansas City Highway Shootings Obama Awards Navy Football Trophy Anti-semitic Leaflets Posted in Eastern Ukraine Raw: Magnitude-7.2 Earthquake Shakes Mexico City Ceremony at MIT Remembers One of Boston's Finest Raw: Students Hurt in Colo. School Bus Crash Raw: Church Tries for Record With Chalk Jesus Raw: Faithful Celebrate Good Friday Worldwide Deadly Avalanche Sweeps Slopes of Mount Everest Police Arrest Suspect in Highway Shootings Drought Concerns May Hurt Lake Tourism Vermont Goat Meat Gives Refugees Taste of Home Calif. Investigators Re-construct Fatal Bus Cras Mayor Rob Ford Launches Re-election Campaign Appellate Court Hears Okla. Gay Marriage Case