Freedom. What a concept, huh? One of the sweetest words in the world’s vocabulary.
I learned a long time ago that the pursuit of freedom will make one do almost anything. Sometimes in the spur of a moment. I used to love to hear my maternal grandfather tell about how he woke up one day on a sharecropper’s plot of land in Hawkinsville, Georgia, thinking to himself, “God, I don’t know what all is out there in this world but I just know You created something better than this.”
At about the same time “big boss man” came riding up on his horse rallying what were supposed to be “free men” to the fields, “yelling and spitting tobacco every which-a-away” my grandfather would say and the next thing he knew he had snatched the man off his horse, gave him the ass-kicking of his life and then ran for that very life until he reached the Gulf of Mexico – to what, he didn’t know. He just knew he had to be free.
I thought of him a little while back at a forum at the Malcolm X Library that featured four of a group of people who stand tall in my mind and soul: The Freedom Riders. Yvette Porter, of the Walter J. Porter Educational & Community Foundation, brought them to town.
They, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, Robert Singleton and his wife Helen Singleton, and Robert Farrell were among a historic number of people who taught us non-violent (Gandhian) ways to pursue freedom for all, demonstrating before the eyes of the world how powerful the tactics of Civil Disobedience are and can be, teaching us all along what love can do.
Their mentor, Henry Lodge, who was then the National Vice Chair of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) was in attendance also.
Carrol Waymon, who founded and directed the Citizens Interracial Committee (CIC), San Diego’s first human relations agency, moderated the proceedings – in the humorous witty fashion that I remember him calling upon back when he worked so tirelessly to open up employment and housing opportunities for all San Diegans. His work in those days, as well as his handling of this particular day in honor of the Freedom Riders, was done in a spirit of love.
It was out of love that the Freedom Riders allowed themselves to undergo the fears and beatings and jailing that they had to brave. Parchman Farm where they were sent was no exhibit at Disneyland.
No. There’s no dignity in being stripped naked and searched; in being given no basic items like a pencil or paper or books; in having the lights kept on all day; in being mocked with “Y’all wanna march? Well, march to yo cell;” in being issued clothes that don’t fit; in having your breakfast, coffee, strongly flavored with chicory and biscuits and molasses and grits; in being served beans and black-eyed peas for lunch and supper everyday; in having the governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, direct the prison guards to “break their spirit, not their bones;” in having some of your comrades murdered and raped.
And there on a library stage these beautiful people sat proudly, as loving people, in full control of their minds all these years after having endured the worst of times.
Out of their ordeals they have chosen to contribute their skills as human beings to make life better for all people: Filner, recently, standing up to the powers-that-be in the tourist industry, demanding that they pay their workers decently; Mr. Singleton, a professor of economics at Loyola Marymount University, has over the years focused on, among many things, projects in the area of job training so people can learn employable skills; Mrs. Singleton provides strategic planning, project management, fund raising and research services to non-profit organizations that work for the betterment of their communities – she has toiled to highlight the work of African American artists so a people can share the feelings in their soul with the world; Robert Farrell assists individuals and organizations in Los Angeles County in money matters, in a world where money really does matter.
He said something that day that reflects what he and other Freedom Riders taught us: “In America we have the power to change.”
I know that is so true. My grandfather over a hundred years ago had to free himself from bondage by slapping an ornery racist around that he had just jerked off a horse and then running and hiding to avoid being strung up on the branch of a tree. The Freedom Riders, as time went by, wrote new chapters in pursuits of freedom without raising a hand other than to lead themselves in a song like “We Shall Overcome” – some day.
We, indeed, in America, have the power to change. And, goodness knows, there’s a lot to change.