I started my transition from small town to big city at 17 years old on my way to college. Like most first year students at the end of the 20th century, my trip to college was relatively uneventful and required little more than a map. The advice I received involved making good choices, ones that would help me succeed socially, academically, and professionally. My biggest problem? I had no clue about a major. Today’s college freshmen worry about surviving (metaphorically) their first year of college, not the drive there.
Forty years earlier, African Americans, particularly when traveling in the south, did not leave home without a copy of Victor Green’s Negro Motorist Green Book. The Green Book listed hotels, private homes, gas stations, and other necessary establishments open to “colored people” as they traveled.
During the Jim Crow era, especially in the south, traveling in a car required an education not found in any book; it required an understanding of the spoken and unspoken guidelines for existing as an African American in white society and the potentially fatal consequences should one fail to adhere to the rules.
In the late 1990s, no one warned me to avoid eye contact with a white person; to cross the street or step aside if someone white walked towards me. I did not have to be told that whistling at white woman (a behavior I find reprehensible towards any woman) could get me lynched.
As I reflect back and listen to stories of those closer to 100 than 60, I recognize and must admit my privilege. College acceptance and attendance is no longer a matter of skin color; if we are accepted and can afford tuition, off we go. I can eat at any restaurant, speak to any woman (or man), and I do not have to “give way” on the sidewalk. I continue, as I did when I went to college, to exercise my freedom of speech without trepidation. I know, at least for African Americans, the Jim Crow era, which began in the late 1800s and lasted through the early 1960s, no longer exists–at least not on a large scale.
In 1961, groups of teenagers (mostly college students) from across the country initiated one of the greatest social movements in history–the Freedom Rides. (I searched for a superhero sound bite or emoji that could follow after the name of these brave individuals, only to be limited by my lack of technical knowledge.) The eclecticism of the participants made the Freedom Riders so unique and special.
Reality for these 17 and 18 year olds differed significantly from mine. Faced with multiple forms of discrimination beyond race, they worked tirelessly to gain rights and respect for ALL citizens. Their actions remain with us in artistic representations, such as documentaries, plays, operas, stories, and speeches.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Oprah Winfrey celebrated the lives and legacy of all living Freedom Riders by inviting them to her show. I was fortunate enough to cross paths with two of these brave individuals over the past through years: Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, from Arlington, VA, and Ernest “RIP” Patton Jr., from Nashville, TN. People of all races, religions, genders, geographical locations, and sexual orientations should pay homage to the Freedom Riders who risked their lives (and some of whom lost their lives) for the privileges we have today. Their nonviolence training and actions during Jim Crow conquered evil and made our lives that much better. Thank you, FREEDOM RIDERS!