By NEMS Daily Journal
Some of Mississippi’s worst hours of statehood started in mid-1961 when “Freedom Riders” began arriving in our state and in Alabama to prove that desegregation of interstate transportation was a fact and to inspire the expansion of the civil rights movement, which had not reached its full momentum.
In an outright denial of free speech, free assembly and laws of the time requiring desegregation, Mississippi authorities arrested the Freedom Riders as they arrived in Jackson, and they ended up at Parchman, the infamous state penitentiary in the heart of the Delta.
Gov. Haley Barbour’s announcement Monday that an official commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders will begin May 22 is one encouraging measure of how much our state has changed for the better in that half-century.
In 1961, Mississippi officially denied hospitality to fellow Americans who were doing nothing more than exercising their rights, and most Mississippians, especially whites, held the Freedom Riders and their goals in contempt.
Those few hundred people began changing the consciences of white Mississippians who were forced by the presence and the abominable maltreatment of the Freedom Riders to examine the meaning of citizenship, civic relationships, personal friendships, and the universal rule of constitutional law.
The organization Mississippi Freedom 50th is the structure coordinating the commemoration events, with Barbour serving as event host. U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson is the event chairman.
So far, about 125 of the surviving Freedom Riders are expected to attend.
Barbour made the announcement at the Millsaps/Tougaloo Martin Luther King Celebration on the Millsaps College campus. His participation is appropriate, some would argue necessary, as governor of the state that was most resistant to full rights under law for black people.
Tougaloo, a liberal arts college historically associated with the United Church of Christ, was the center of Freedom Rider coordination in Mississippi, and its name is prominently associated with the larger civil rights movement.
The leadership team also includes former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson, who was a student at Tougaloo when the Freedom Riders headquartered there. Anderson was the first African-American justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court, and he is a senior partner in the law firm Phelps Dunbar.
Most of the riders were college students, many motivated by religious faith, and all were dedicated to non-violent protest.
The dehumanizing treatment of the Freedom Riders forced the federal government’s hand, starting the final chapter of sanctioned segregation in Mississippi and the rest of the nation.
Some hearts and minds remain to be changed, but the Freedom Riders opened the way.