By NEMS Daily Journal
A week from today – May 22 – Mississippi begins its 50th anniversary commemoration and celebration of the Freedom Riders, a few hundred brave young adults, mostly blacks, who rode buses into the Deep South to confront Jim Crow laws about public transportation and segregation.
They might as well have been riding into South Africa under apartheid.
Mississippi and the rest of the South in 1961 were for all practical purposes living as if the Civil War never happened and slavery had not been abolished. Blacks weren’t accepted as equal. Life was segregated from birth to death – and some believed beyond the grave – and it was supposed to be that way by divine right. You could have asked most Southern Christians of every white denomination, and they would have affirmed segregation as the order preferred by God.
American law, fortunately, had begun to grow teeth to set things right, and the Freedom Riders who came to places like Jackson, Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery and New Orleans did so at great peril to life.
A PBS Front Line documentary on that nation-changing time from May to November 1961 premiers Monday at 8 p.m. on Mississippi Public Broadcasting and other nationwide affiliates.
Every Mississippian should watch and either remember how it was just 50 years ago, or for those too young to know about that angry time, learn where we started and how far we have come.
The events beginning next Sunday in Jackson will bring together some of the most prominent figures of that era, and they are eyewitnesses to changed history. They were the changers, followed gradually and tentatively at first by white Mississippians whose consciences began to see the light.
It is expected that more than 100 Freedom Riders and their families will travel to Mississippi to reunite and tell their compelling stories.
Those who rode to Mississippi faced mob violence and they were shipped for the most part to Parchman, Mississippi’s infamous maximum security prison for hardened criminals in the Delta. Their crime was breaking cultural taboos, not federal law.
The Freedom Riders were the first wave, and despite vows never to yield, Mississippians eventually were faced down by the power of the law – and at times the armed force of the federal government.
For high school seniors graduating across Northeast Mississippi this week, 1961 is ancient history. But looking into it is seeing a world that no longer exists. The proof is in the faces of the seniors of every race and ethnicity living in our state, most graduating together from public schools and, for the most part, in friendship.
Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an acronym emblazoned into the minds of a generation, the self-proclaimed “Freedom Riders” came from across American society.
Mississippi officials locked up more than 300 riders in Parchman. Nobody gave up. They endured.
Ironically, the chief goal at that point was to get the backing of President John F. Kennedy, and they succeeded. A year later, he would become the most despised president in Mississippi during the 20th century when he ordered federal marshals and federalized troops to enforce the integration of the University of Mississippi by one black student, James Meredith. Whites rioted. People died.
A complete celebration schedule can be found at http://ms50thfreedomridersreunion.org/schedule. Some events require a ticket purchase by May 18, but most events are free.