Photo Credit: Birmingham History Center
There they are, that crowd of white men calmly beating their unseen victims on the floor of the Trailways bus station in Birmingham. They are not hiding from the camera. They are proud to be there, foot soldiers in the war to keep the South segregated: shock troops meeting the Freedom Riders head on, confronting their determined non-violence with determined violence. Our way of life against their way of life. They knew back in 1961 what would happen if black people were allowed to ride in the front of the bus, drink out of white fountains, eat lunch at the lunch counter, vote. They knew what would happen if they didn’t stop them right there in Birmingham. That’s why they were proud to be the ones with the lead pipes and baseball bats and fists. The whole system all over the South depended on keeping the Negro in his place, and until these uppity Negroes came along, the system usually worked fine without the necessity of violence, or maybe just a little along, just to keep people reminded of what would happen if Negroes got out of their place.
Those white faces flashed again before our eyes the other night when the Public Broadcasting System aired a special on the Freedom Riders in conjunction with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The courage of those black people and white people who got on those buses and headed down South is amazing. They may have underestimated it, but they knew what waited for them, and they knew it would be ugly, and it was. But they also knew that they were risking their lives for basic human rights guaranteed to every citizen by the Constitution that governs our country. All they sought was equality under the law.
The bravery of the Freedom Riders defeated the violence, but their antagonists never surrendered. They fell back and regrouped. They changed political parties. They got control of the state governments. They put on suits and swapped their baseball bats for legislative gavels. They continue today to do violence to the basic human rights of black people and poor people. They opt out of Medicaid at tremendous cost not only to the poor but to the whole state, denying its citizens billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. They make it harder and harder for African Americans and the poor to vote. They deny local governments the right to set minimum wages. They do violence to public educational funding while building in massive tax writeoffs for private schools.
They moved from the bus station to the capitol without missing a beat, and they’re in control throughout the South, still doing what needs to be done to keep people down, still serving those who profit from low wages and expensive insurance and health care, still blindly uncaring if people are undereducated, malnourished and sick.
Those men in the Birmingham bus station beating those defenseless people got away with it because they were serving the people in power. The Southern legislators and governors who deny their own people education and health care are also serving those in power who want to keep corporate and individual taxes low on massive profits, even if that means—which it does—that the great mass of their citizens will live with financial uncertainty and without the tools to pull themselves up to a better life for their families.
What kind of Freedom Riders will it take to confront this kind of oppression, so that the people of Georgia and the other Southern states can indeed be free at last?