Activists past and present discuss civil rights 50 years after Freedom Rides

BRATTLEBORO — It's May, 1961. Black and white civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders scramble from a burning Greyhound bus and into the closed fists of a white mob on an Alabama roadside.

They were among more than 400 black and white Americans, many college-aged, that boarded buses from May to November and rode into the Deep South, defying decades of “Jim Crow” segregation laws.

The riders had trained in the principles of nonviolence and knew the dangers ahead. Still, they bravely rode into the face of racism and hatred, do-nothing public officials, and savage beatings by mobs.

But their simple act of traveling together changed America.

Last week, fifty years later, activists and community leaders weighed in on racism and social justice during a pair of forums in Brattleboro.

Vermont Public Television, joined by The Commons, the Brattleboro Community Justice Center, Brattleboro Union High School, and the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, hosted the two events at the high school.

The afternoon event, geared toward BUHS students, featured a panel discussion moderated by teacher Bill Holiday and BUHS junior Lilyanna Sollberger.

In the evening, VPT premiered a one-hour version of the documentary Freedom Riders, a new film produced by WGBH in Boston. Holiday moderated a second panel discussion with activists Juanita Nelson and Chris Williams, and community leaders Janaki Natarajan, Curtiss Reed Jr., andLise Sparrow.

Freedom Riders, part of PBS's “American Experience” documentary series, chronicles the six months of activism that challenged segregation in interstate travel. PBS will air the complete two-hour documentary in May to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.

During the evening panel, Holiday paraphrased a quote to help frame some of the actions taken by the Freedom Rides' organizer, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

According to Holiday, CORE co-founder James Farmer said that, if the federal government would not enforce its own laws, like those that desegregated interstate travel and facilities, then the activists needed to make it more politically dangerous for the federal government to stand by and do nothing.

Panelist Chris Williams, who went to Mississippi in 1964 to help register black people to vote, nodded. The CORE members he worked with decided to face violence in Mississippi head on until the price went so high that the federal government had to step in.

He said that the South combated social change and dissent through a “tradition of mob violence.” Williams witnessed huge mobs form within minutes, even in sparsely populated rural towns.

You don't understand the force of mob violence until it's directed at you, said Williams.

18 years old and in Mississippi

Williams said that his decision to go to Mississippi as part of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) in the “Freedom Summer” of 1964-65 was “as much ignorance as it was a conscious decision.” He said if he'd known what he was headed for, he might have backed out.

SNCC and COFO members helped register people in Mississippi to vote.

“Still, I feel glad every day I went,” Williams said. “You could see who was on the right side of history.”

It's a rare in life that a situation presents itself as a clear right and wrong, he said.

The then-18-year-old New England native had seen ministers who worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., speak at Smith College about civil rights work in the South. The ministers were taking applications for people to go to Pascagoula, Miss. to help blacks register for the vote and to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Williams said that he was sent to Mississippi after a court case had contested Mississippi's voters' test, which contained questions requiring a prospective voter to interpret the state constitution.

. As part of the case, the court had set aside the voters' test for one year, contending that the test blocked black people from being able to register to vote.

Standing up on their home turf

“It wasn't just a bunch of outside people from the North,” said Williams of the volunteers. “There was an indigenous movement too.”

Williams remembers activist and friend Bob Moses telling him, “You're not going to Mississippi to be leaders. You're going there to help the leaders. You're passing through. The change will happen after you leave.”

Williams said he observed the “dynamics of race .... proscribed in every detail” of life for the black population.

He remembers knocking on the doors of black households and being told “Yes, sir” to every question.

“It wasn't a real conversation,” said Williams. Caste and class had worn grooves into people's psyches.

Williams also remembers standing as an armed guard under a tree at night with a fellow SNCC/COFO member to protect everyone in the house from angry white locals.

“[Mississippi] was a cruel place at the time,” Williams said.

But he also saw successes and change.

He remembers the six members of the Nelson family who lived in a shack on a local plantation. They had a fire in their hearts and saw an opportunity to change their lives and society, said Williams, adding that the Nelsons went on to become leaders in their community.

Williams said he “takes a dim view” of people who say to him how wonderful it was that he went down South and “helped the colored people.”

He believes the value of what he experienced and the people he met is priceless.

Williams thinks that youth have lost that social sense of themselves. They're not “burned up by social issues” or willing to take risks and put their beliefs on the line to effect change, he said.

Williams doesn't think the United States is a post-racial society. He has worried that the events of the Civil Rights Movement are fading for young people in America, which is sad, because it's the young people - like their counterparts in Egypt just a few weeks ago - who can create social change, he observed.

The Civil Rights Movement reached out to the professed values of America, said Williams.

“It appealed to America's better self,” he said.

Viewing the whole

“I believe all people are equal,” said activist Juanita Nelson to a small audience after the premiere of Freedom Riders.

Nelson described herself as a pacifist, war tax resister, and jailbird who follows the principles of nonviolence. Although not one of the original Freedom Riders, Nelson and her husband Wally, who died in 2002, were active in human and civil rights since the 1940s.

Nelson was born in 1923 in Cleveland, Ohio. When she was 16, she protested segregation on a Georgia-bound train by sitting in every “whites only” car. She also helped start the Cleveland chapter of CORE in 1944 and, as a sophomore at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she was arrested for the first time for buying a cup of hot chocolate at a whites-only drugstore lunch counter.

“Mom was a firebrand. I got it from her, and she got it from me,” said Nelson.

She joked that her mother supported her family as a “war profiteer.” During World War II, Nelson's mother drove a streetcar - a job never intended for a black woman, except that all the men had gone away to fight.

“We as human beings will have to learn to live together [and] live lives that are building and not tearing down,” Nelson said.

Nelson quipped that prison - where she met her husband Wally in 1944 - is the best place to meet your life partner.

She was a young journalist, researching an article on the prison. Wally and a friend were serving time as conscientious objectors when he saw her across the prison and tracked her down through his friends at the Quaker church he attended.

Nelson shook her head when the audience asked her questions about the Civil Rights Movement and race in America.

Race is only a part of how we live our lives, she said.

We focus too much on one thing, said Nelson. “I try to think in a whole way.”

She said she has tried to express her belief in the way she has lived. Human rights are not just one aspect. For Nelson, she is also concerned with “what we take from others.”

“I don't want black millionaires any more than I do white ones,” Nelson said.

She said that does not want her life to “take anyone's pound of flesh” and has chosen to live in a cabin she and Wally built at Woolman Hill in Deerfield, Mass. - a home with two kerosene lamps, a wood stove, and an outhouse.

A system's logic

Reed, the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, said that there are myths about the Civil Rights Movement worth dispelling.

One is that the movement was monolithic, without dissenting voices, and that the only voice belonged to Rev. King. Other myths were that nonviolence was the only tactic employed, and that events like the Freedom Rides were random, he said.

“A variety of tactics were used by a variety of people, black and white,” said Janaki Natarajan, co-director of the Spark Teacher Education Institute in Putney and the director of Bapagrama Educational Center in Bangalore, India.

“Divide and rule,” a tactic used for centuries, has allowed a few to benefit off the work of many, Natarajan told the audience.

Lise Sparrow, pastor of the Guilford Community Church, works with area youth. She spoke about how conditions like poverty can lead to youth lashing out at their communities. She helped counsel three of the young people involved in a 2008 racial incident at BUHS where several students created a group called the Nigger Hanging Redneck Association, an incident that triggered race-related tension among area youth at the time.

She said that the youths she worked with hailed from Guilford, but they also lived in poverty. She said that our society fails many kids, and when we can't take care of our children, they do terrible things to others.

Nelson and Natarajan agreed, saying that society can't have riches without poverty.

Natarajan said the type of lives people lead can be inspirational, but to create change, everyone must be aware of the the rules operating in world around them.

Deeply learned ideologies, she said, keep the current systems in place, and the “logic” of our current class system depends on many people living in poverty for a few to live in wealth. Racism exists to divide people, so that they can ruled, she said.

At home in Brattleboro

An audience member asked Reed whether, in his decade working in the area on social justice issues, any events have given him satisfaction.

Reed responded that in the past 18 months, he has seen people in the community come together to respond to incidents such as the barber in Bellows Falls who turned away an African-American customer, the desecration of the cross at St. Michael's Catholic Church in Brattleboro with racial graffiti, and the painting of swastikas at a swimming hole in Dummerston.. The Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity didn't have to take the lead in addressing these events, he said.

Reed noted that he watched community members and organizations coming together to partner in new ways, and saw “well-intentioned white people acting with intention, and making that transition.”

Reed said that everyone has his or her own “sphere of influence” in which a person can choose to act in a fair and just way toward the people around them.

“We need more of that,” he said.

He spoke of the necessity of being “courageously conspicuous” in creating a fair, just, and affirming sphere of influence.

Reed alsosaid that other people need to see individuals stand up for justice. For those not in the habit of advocating for people, at first, standing up on the side of right will feel uncomfortable and might even hurt, he warned..

New advocates may find the lack of instant gratification challenging, Reed said. Social movements aren't that cut and dried, he said; it takes a constant commitment to assess where one is and where other people are with their lives, how they want to be treated, and what they want to be called.

It's about developing relationships, said Reed. It's much easier to dismiss someone without a relationship.

Reed said schools don't teach these skills; rather, they “squash” children's natural creativity and curiosity.

“[Schools] rob children of the opportunity to be fully engaged with the diversity around them,” said Reed.

He said when a child points and says, “Daddy, look at that man in the wheelchair” or “Mommy, look at that chocolate man,” adults' knee-jerk reaction is “Shhhh!” This encouragement of silence results in children growing up without the skills or empathy to interact with people who may be “different,” he said.

As a result, “conversations become awkward,” Reed said.

Thinking big, taking little steps

Other panelists offered some parting thoughts on the lessons and legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.

Sparrow said that people need to have the willingness to see more than what currently exists, and then act on that vision as a group. A community action has more power than one person acting alone, she said.

Sparrow also said that adults should remember that just because a child has “fill-in-skin-color-here,” one cannot assume that the child holds any given point of view about the world . The Civil Rights Movement happened through the commitment of a lot of people whose names were never written down in the history books, said Williams.

We must think, feel, and act for ourselves, said Nelson, and not wait for someone else or a political party to do things for us. She said she tries to think of the big picture and make little actions.

“I try to vote with my life, and not a ballot,” she said.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates