He pushed his hands into his pockets and continued his calculated steps across the tiled floor. His face was solemn as he stared into each of us, waiting for us to respond; knowing that we wouldn’t. It was dead quiet. I think he enjoyed that moment of silence, knowing we weren’t being quiet out of fear but rather because we had no words, nothing to offer his question.
Three minutes earlier he had asked us what we knew about the Civil Rights Movement. What was it for? Who led it? When did it start? Why were children being killed for their differences? Why was “the home of the brave” acting like such cowards towards change? The guy behind me had a response for some of these questions and the girl sitting three chairs over seemed to know what she wanted to say. I know a fair amount about this time in history, but I’m also fully aware that no history book, Wikipedia article, documentary, or eye-witness account can fully describe what began sixty years ago and never quite ended. I kept my eyes down knowing that if he called on me, it would lead to more questions and likely the confrontation that I didn’t know nearly as much as I should about the movement.
My professor asked if we knew what Freedom Riders were. Considering it’s been years since I studied American History, I didn’t raise my hand. Some of you history buffs are probably squirming in your seats as you read this, but for the rest of us, here’s the Celia-fied summary. During the early 1960s, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for public buses to be segregated (think Rosa Parks) but some Southern states were not about to let that happen. Freedom Riders were civil-rights activists, usually students and young adults, who scribbled their names down and volunteered to get on a racially integrated bus to become victims of white mobs and riots, which would draw national attention to every town in which they stopped. They figured that if they could get enough gunfire, riots, and bombings (yes, people bombed buses full of students my age), Washington wouldn’t be able to ignore them any longer. Bus after bus drove down through Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi, knowing that they would be blown up or beaten by mobs or sent to maximum security prison for weeks on end. Here’s the interesting part: there was a waiting list to be a Freedom Rider.
My professor crossed his arms and pushed his glasses back up on his nose, weaving together his next words. He spoke up with a bolder intensity, saying, “Students your age were on a waiting list to be tormented just to draw attention to this movement. Think about that decision. Think about the day they walked up the stairs of the bus and sat down, not knowing if they were coming home.” He walked down the line of chairs, letting his words hang in the air like ghosts behind him. He turned to us and asked, “Have you ever felt so strongly about something that you would risk paying that price? Have you ever felt strongly about anything at all?” Dead silence.
I sunk a little deeper in my chair, listening to the clock tick as the room thickened with anticipation for his next words, any words, to break up the thoughts filling the room. That question sat heavy in my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely grateful for having never experienced such extreme injustice in my day to day existence, and I know that although Wikipedia reports an ending of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century, the fight continues today and will continue tomorrow.
I didn’t write this to throw out my opinions about civil rights or today’s injustices or anything controversial, but rather to uncover some thoughts. I could go on and on (as if this isn’t long enough) about how students not much younger or older than ourselves made some pretty big decisions and were a tipping point for one of the most important movements in U.S. history, but I don’t want to do that. You’ve already picked up on that idea, and I think you get the picture. Instead, all I’ll say is that I hope to feel so deeply about something, about anything, that I have no reservations in scribbling my name, getting on the bus, and hoping I come back. Maybe that’s what the world needs a little bit more of: some people who aren’t afraid to go against the status quo and, not only pursue, but truly fight for what’s right.