The freedom riders triumphed through non-violence

By Alan Bean

Leonard Pitts puts his finger on the key organizing principle of the freedom rider movement:

Everybody thinks they could get on that bus. It’s an easy thing to say. Then you remember the savagery, the violent attacks from people mortally outraged that these young men and women traveled in integrated groups and ignored segregation signs in bus-station restrooms and coffee shops. And you remember that the rules of engagement required pacifism: a willingness to get hit, and not hit back.

It required enormous courage to take the words of Jesus at face value:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile . . . You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

The implication is clear: if we hate our enemies, if we demand a tooth for a tooth, we cannot be children of our Father in heaven.

Christians must consider the killing of Osama bin Laden in this light.  Osama was the ultimate enemy.  He worked great evil against America and would have done worse had it been in his power.  We are much safer with Osama resting with the fishes.  So much safer, in fact, that our president claims that those who question the operation should have their heads examined.

Should Jesus have his head examined?  If so, who will conduct the examination?  Any volunteers?

Or perhaps Jesus would have made an exception in the case of a man as bad as Osama bin Laden, Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin.

No, he wouldn’t.

Nor would Jesus make an exception for defenseless freedom riders when the mob appeared out of nowhere brandishing baseball bats and tire irons.

When we strike back at the enemy, we take on the spiritual contours of the enemy.  The process is invisible, but stunningly real.

Was the killing of bin Laden justified?  For Christian disciples there can be no simple answer.  An evil isn’t transformed into a good by virtue of being necessary. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues to challenge us 66 years after the Nazis put a rope around his neck.  The German theologian was involved in a violent plot to kill Adolph Hitler but he made no attempt to make this decision appear noble.  In his book Ethics, Bonhoeffer put the matter this way: “When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else.  He answers for it . . . Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.”

Bonhoeffer was radicalized by a brief stint at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  Appalled by the segregation and abject poverty he witnessed in Harlem, the young German theologian wondered how the Church of Jesus Christ could rest easy in the face of grave injustice.  The answer, he realized, was that the church was no longer taking its ethical cues from Jesus. 

All of this is lost on most contemporary progressives.  The other night, Ed Schultz, the bloviating host of The Ed Show, was interviewing counterterrorism intelligence expert Malcolm Nance about liberal criticism of the bin Laden hit.  Nance opined that no American has “the right to question” an operation that was so obviously honorable.  Ed agreed.  I don’t.

The freedom riders understood that they would be hit and that they could not hit back.  Leonard Pitts thinks he understands why:

It was not just a high Christian ideal, but also sound and effective strategy, the idea being that through the willingness to sacrifice your body, you made it clear as air to a watching world which side had the moral high ground, and which did not.

I’m not sure why Pitts draws a distinction between “a high Christian ideal” and an “effective strategy”.  Is he suggesting that non-violence might be an effective strategy in some settings but be entirely impractical in others?  Maybe the Machiavellian doctrine of controlled violence is “effective strategy” for governments while non-violence works for civil rights leaders.  

Today, the civil rights community is torn between Martin’s non-violence and Malcolm’s “by any means necessary”.   One can certainly forgive the Black Panthers et al for rejecting non-violence; the idea, after all, is utterly unAmerican.  Moreover, it runs counter to the human instinct for self-preservation.  The Black Panthers were confronting post-segregation racism, a much more elusive opponent that in-your-face white supremacy.

Nonetheless, the freedom riders succeeded because they practiced non-violence, a tactic hardly anyone in the hardscrabble 21st century takes seriously.

It took courage to get on Freedom Riders’ bus

BY LEONARD PITTS JR.

lpitts@miamiherald.com

When he was 21, Ernest “Rip” Patton made out his will. He didn’t have much beyond an old set of drums he used in the jazz club gigs that helped him pay his way through college. He willed them to his parents, then climbed aboard a freedom bus bound for Jackson, Miss.

On the campus of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., there is a small museum commemorating him and the other Freedom Riders who converged upon the South in the spring and summer of 1961. One of its exhibits asks students whether they could “get on the bus” as the Freedom Riders did. Most of the answers scrawled below are enthusiastic and affirmative: “Definitely,” “Without a doubt,” “In a heartbeat.”

I shared this with Rip — everybody calls him Rip — the other day as we walked toward the bus that is carrying several original Freedom Riders, 40 college students and a lucky journalist or three through the South on a 50thanniversary commemorative voyage sponsored by PBS to publicize Freedom Riders, a new documentary. Rip, a courtly man, smiled as if at some private joke. But his thoughts were not hard to guess.

Everybody thinks they could get on that bus. It’s an easy thing to say. Then you remember the savagery, the violent attacks from people mortally outraged that these young men and women traveled in integrated groups and ignored segregation signs in bus-station restrooms and coffee shops. And you remember that the rules of engagement required pacifism: a willingness to get hit, and not hit back.

A bus was firebombed in Anniston, Ala. In Birmingham, police gave the Ku Klux Klan 15 minutes to beat riders to their heart’s content. Yet no Freedom Rider ever raised a hand in defense.

Get hit, don’t hit back. “You have to change your whole way of thinking,” Rip told me. “You have to love your fellow man, just like the Book says. He’s beating on you, kicking you, you’ve still got to love him.” It was not just a high Christian ideal, but also sound and effective strategy, the idea being that through the willingness to sacrifice your body, you made it clear as air to a watching world which side had the moral high ground, and which did not.

The proof of the strategy lies in the result: a nation transformed. And yet, even knowing that, the idea of it still makes you pause.

Get hit, and don’t hit back? It bespeaks not just commitment to nonviolence, but commitment. As Martin Luther King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

So it is easy, from the vantage point of 50 years, to say where you would have stood. Easy to say “Definitely,” “Without a doubt,” “In a heartbeat” after the cause has been vindicated, the buses have stopped running and the Klansmen have laid down their clubs. We all know the courage we like to think we would’ve had.

But ultimately, that is history as parlor game, a question that is as unanswerable as it is irrelevant. It is enough to be thankful that Rip Patton and more than 400 other mostly young people found the courage that it took. One honors that courage not with parlor games, but by realizing history did not stop, nor challenges evaporate once the segregation signs came down.

There is exploitation of the poor. There is fear of the Muslims. There is hatred of the gays. There is mass incarceration of the blacks. So there is ample opportunity, still, today, to find a place to stand in moments of challenge and controversy.

After all, we are not defined by the courage we think we would’ve had.

One thought on “The freedom riders triumphed through non-violence

  1. I watched “American Experience: Freedom Riders” on PBS last night. I had bad dreams. It occurred to me that the jails and prisons, specifically Parchman, were integrated long before schools, bus stations, etc. While I am an advocate of non-violent resistance to injustice, it also occurred to me that it took the threat of violence from the state to prevent First Baptist Church of Montgomery from becoming a mass crematorium.

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