Sunday, May 8, 2011

Freedom Riders say today's youth disconnected from battle against racism

In an article in today's Washington Post, the legacy of the Freedom Rides, which took place 50 years ago, is combined with a look at today's young people:

One of the youngest of the riders, Hezekiah Watkins, is now 63 years old and lives across town from Lovelady in Jackson. He has found himself thinking the same thing when he looks at his 21-year-old daughter, Kristie. In recent weeks, as he has given interviews and speeches about his experience during the rides, he has juxtaposed his teenage years with hers.

“A lot of times, she feels as though somebody owes her. I’m always asking, ‘What are you owed and by whom?’ ” Watkins said. “I talked to all of my kids about the ’60s and what we went through. They’ll just look at me like, ‘It’s not relevant.’ My thing has always been this: You’re standing on a banana peel, and any given day you could slip.”

For Hank Thomas, who was 19 when he joined the Freedom Riders, the contrast between his experiences and those of young people today could not be more stark.

Fifty years ago, the sacrifice was unambiguous. Forcing integration on the South meant putting your body on the line. It meant buying a bus ticket down to Jackson after hearing about the bus firebombed in Anniston and the men and women beaten in Birmingham and Montgomery.

“You never knew what was going to happen,” Thomas said, remembering the anxiety of the times.

Thomas, a black businessman, lives outside Atlanta. He owns three McDonald’s franchises and three Marriott hotels. When he was in the first group of 13 riders, launched with little fanfare by the Congress of Racial Equity, they called themselves the “young eagles.” Thomas jokes now that they are the “bald eagles.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. considered that first ride a fool’s errand, and at one point he declined an invitation to board the bus with the students. The young felt haughty about going where the leader of the civil rights movement would not dare. Their protest, in retrospect, is credited with giving the nonviolent movement a template for future campaigns.

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