Remembering the Freedom Riders (or, Why I am a Proud Democrat)
May 5, 2001
Mark Thibodeau

I am often asked by my conservative friends why I would ever want to be one of those people - a Democrat. Usually, I respond with a chuckle or a shrug, not wanting to bring the room down with political arguments.

While surfing some history sites, I was reminded of why I became a Democrat in the first place. Yesterday was the fortieth anniversary of the first ever Freedom Ride. On May 4, 1961, the first 13 Freedom riders began their long bus trip through the American South. A civil rights group, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), started organizing Freedom Rides because the segregation of public transportation was continuing in much of the South, despite a Supreme Court ruling declaring the practice unconstitutional.

After three days of training in nonviolent techniques, black and white volunteers sat next to each other as they traveled by bus through the Deep South. James Farmer, national director of CORE, and his thirteen courageous volunteers left Washington and headed for Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

In Anniston, Alabama, one bus was destroyed, and riders on another were attacked by men armed with clubs, bricks, iron pipes and knives. Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent John Seigenthaler to accompany the Freedom Riders. In Birmingham, the passengers were greeted by members of the Ku Klux Klan, and further acts of violence. At Montgomery, the state capital, a white mob beat the riders with chains and ax handles. Seigenthaler was knocked unconscious when he went to the aid of one of the passengers.

The Ku Klux Klan hoped that this violent treatment would stop other young people from taking part in freedom rides. However, over the next six months, over a thousand people took part in freedom rides.

With the local authorities unwilling to protect these people, President John F. Kennedy sent Byron White and 500 federal marshals from the North to do the job. The next time somebody asks me why I would ever want to be a Democrat, I will tell them the story of the Freedom Riders, and challenge them to join me in this proud tradition, this ongoing struggle for the soul of the nation, this all-important buffer to the crushing weight of apathy. I will ask them to become members of the Democratic Party of America.

As I type these words, the Republican Party - after waging an all-too-obvious war against black voters during the election - have managed to gain control of the White House. This, despite losing the popular vote by more than half-a-million, and despite the fact that more people left the voting booths in Florida thinking they had cast their vote for the Democratic candidate (a fact even Republicans will soon be forced to admit). They are a majority in Congress, and hold a bare majority in the Senate. The Supreme Court currently lists to the right, thanks to the appointment of highly partisan, conservative-activist judges like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas - these same judges who are now rewriting the law of the land in an attempt to erase a century of progress. No more is the Supreme Court the last stand for justice, dignity, fairness, and the common good of our nation. It is now nothing more than another weapon in the right-wing arsenal, wielded with all the obvious choreography of pistols at dawn.

People, it hasn't been this bad since Nixon tried to make America hate you. There is work to be done.

Donate. Volunteer. Evangelize!

Do it for yourself. Do it for your fellow citizens. Do it because it's worth doing.