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'Freedom Riders' discuss social movements, then and now

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts, Top Stories

October 28, 2011

They were warned: You’ll be called names. They’ll harass you, beat you, maybe even kill you. But that wasn’t enough to deter the brave men and women who traveled down to the South by bus in the summer of 1961 to challenge the segregation of transportation. Labeled agitators and communists by their detractors in both the North and South, today’s history books call them the Freedom Riders.

On Monday night, the Levin Ballroom hosted a special screening of the PBS documentary “Freedom Riders,” which was based on the eponymous book by Ray Arsenault M.A. ’74, Ph.D. ’81. Arsenault appeared for a panel question-and-answer session along with three of the Freedom Riders: Diane Nash, Ellen Ziskind and Paul Breines.

Due to time constraints, roughly 30 minutes of the two-hour long documentary was screened for the audience. The portion screened focused on the first Freedom Rider expedition, which consisted of two buses en route to New Orleans.

When the buses reached Alabama, calamity struck. One bus was attacked and set on fire in the town of Anniston while a mob targeted the Freedom Riders on the other bus when they arrived in Birmingham.

The movement is then shown being resuscitated by a group of students from Fisk University in Memphis; Nash was their leader. The previous year they had successfully desegregated the city’s lunch counters; now they embarked on a potentially deadly journey into the heart of the South.

“Freedom Riders” won three Emmys last month, one of which was for exceptional merit in nonfiction film-making. Based on the segments shown, it’s a truly affecting documentary, revealing the very human faces behind this brave moment. As President Fred Lawrence noted prior to the screening, “This is not a legend. This is the stuff of individual action.”

After the screening, Professor Stephen Whitfield (AMST) hosted a discussion with the three activists. Each discussed how they became involved with the Freedom Rider movement.

Nash spoke of the racial environment she encountered while a student at Fisk. At lunchtime, she would see blacks eating on street curbs; although they could buy food from the lunch counters, they were banned from eating inside.

“Every time I obeyed a segregation law, it felt like I was agreeing … I really hated it and started looking for an organization,” Nash said.

Nash began attending local meetings about non-violence and then became heavily involved with the local civil rights movement, as shown in the documentary.

Ziskind, meanwhile, reflected on the moment in which she became aware of racial inequality. While attending a boarding school, she wanted to invite one of her black schoolmates to dinner, a proposal promptly dismissed by her mother.

“That was my last moment of innocence,” Ziskind said.

Once a student at Columbia University, she began volunteering with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), where she worked with several black students from the South. Her interactions with them inspired her to become involved with the Freedom Rides.

“There was something about them, their commitment … something happened inside me. I wouldn’t call it a decision. It was just a moment of seamless commitment,” she said.

Breines, meanwhile, attended a fundraiser in Long Island and immediately decided to join the effort. Though he noted his Jewish identity did mean “eating bagels and lox and supporting the oppressed,” he characterized the move as impulsive.

“I said to myself and to a friend, I’m going, and I never thought about it after that,” Breines said.

Nash also spoke extensively about African American identity in contemporary society.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, we were consistently saying, ‘We are negroes and are being discriminated against,’” she said.

“As years pass, I’ve seen an assault on black people’s identity.”

Nash specifically cited a reluctance to discuss race, with some whites criticizing blacks for playing the race card. She also found the decline in African American studies departments troubling, particularly in cases where they have been replaced by ones examining multiculturalism or diversity.

“When blacks were put under an umbrella of diversity or multiculturalism, they were put with other groups—but there was no other group that was put in slavery for several centuries,” she said.

“It all happened with few of us noticing.”

At one point, Arsenault remarked, “It’s never too late to get on the bus,” which provoked a discussion about what exactly that means today.

“I think … that [Occupy Wall Street] movement has the right idea: people taking the future into their own hands,” Nash said.

“Can you imagine how long it would have taken if we left it to elected officials to desegregate Greyhound and Trailways?”

Breines agreed, though he did offer one word of caution.

“This is not the ’60s. Everything is completely different … just go and do what you have to do,” he said.
Ziskind stressed the need to be an active member of your community, which she cited as the best way to understand the viewpoints of others.

Nash agreed: “There are millions of us citizens in this country. Why aren’t we meeting in our neighborhoods and talking about what we want to do? … The only reason our country is going in the direction it’s going is because we are not active.”

“Oppression always requires the participation of the oppressed. If the oppressed withdraw their participation from an oppressive system, that system will fail,” Nash said, pointing to the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56.

All three called on today’s protesters to live by the dictates of non-violence that governed the Freedom Rider movement.

“It’s always troubled me … that we moved so quickly beyond it [non-violence],” Breines said, referring to the riots and assassinations that became more frequent in the late ’60s.

Nash, meanwhile, criticized the government for ignoring the lessons of non-violence.

“I’ve just about had it with the government of this country, who put up a statue of Martin Luther King [Jr.] and talk about the Freedom Riders and then do things that are diametrically opposed [to their ideals], including bombing Libya,” she said.

“Don’t just praise non-violence; use it!”

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