Freedom Ride 1999
See photos from Freedom Ride 1999.
Freedom Ride 1999, a project of the Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner Unity Coalition, supported by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, commemorated the 35th anniversary of Freedom Summer with a trip to the South for youth leaders. In the early 1960s, youth activists left the security of their lecture halls and summer jobs to join the freedom fighters' struggle to end segregation and secure the right to vote for all citizens. The activists from the North met face to face with brutal inhumanity — the racism of the South was as tangibly present as the signs over drinking fountains that read "Whites only." Participants of Freedom Ride 1999 had no cause to fear for their lives. The world we traveled to had been cosmetically altered to mask the animosity and fear that exists between blacks and whites. Even though there were no signs marking where blacks were not welcome, racism continued to thrive. Because racism and depravation of civil rights have become insidiously subtle, the riders faced a significantly different challenge than their predecessors. In 1964 their enemy was segregationists' virulent racism, but today the civil rights movement's greatest opponents are complacency, and apathy.
Freedom Ride originated in New York City, with a program of dance, song and words of inspiration. "Advancing the Promise: Honoring the Legacy of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner" was a collaboration of Central Synagogue, Grace United Methodist Church, and the New York Metropolitan Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolence. The participants filled St. Bartholomew's grand hall with applause for national civil rights leaders who addressed the crowd. Representative John Lewis, who participated in Freedom Summer, said: "We live in a better nation, a better world, because of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman . . . Thirty-five years later, it is unbelievable we used to live in a place where people were so full of hate." Everyone listened intently as Dr. Carolyn Goodman spoke of her son: "Andy is never out of my heart . . . Thousands of other young people are still out there doing remarkable things. The civil-rights movement didn't die in the '60s. It is still alive." Following in the tradition of civil rights activists in the '60s, the Grace United Methodist Church Choir and the Central Synagogue Congregational Choir joined together and filled the room with inspirational song. At the end of the evening, participants linked arms and echoed the rallying song of the civil rights movement, "We Shall Overcome." A journey of many miles and challenges lay before them — this wonderful night was only the beginning.
The first day of travel began with a send-off event in New York's Battery Park. Difficulties with the bus company afforded time for the participants to explore the Museum of Jewish Heritage. One participant lingered at the exhibit on the Holocaust and wondered how the other participants felt in a place that she connected with as a Jewish woman. She knew others would have similar thoughts about her as they ventured deep into the South.
The travelers arrived at Howard University in Washington, D.C. for an introduction to civil rights legislative priorities, and the advocacy groups who work to make them realities. Weary participants devoured dinner while interacting with Hillary Shelton of the NAACP and Todd Cox of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Shelton and Cox spoke as representatives of the NAACP and as members of a coalition representing minorities, women, gays and lesbians, and religious groups that had created the Freedom Ride 1999 civil rights briefing book. The participants used the issue briefs to familiarize themselves with issues, and divided themselves into groups focusing on Discrimination in America, Violence in Society, and the Racism of Poverty to further examine relevant legislation, in preparation for their return trip to D.C., which would include meeting with members of Congress.
The riders were up with the sun and stretching out kinks incurred from a short night on dormitory mattresses, an experience that some of the riders had not had for quite awhile. We were on our way to Greensboro, NC, and just beginning to meet each other. The most significant component of the educational program proved to be the interaction between the participants. The group realized that their diversity of races, religions, and ages was one of the journey's greatest resources. The group's ability to share their perspectives and to value the experiences of others is evidence of how far we have come in advancing the ideals of the Freedom Summer, and honoring the memories of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.
The media's cameras were rolling as Rabbi Fred Guttman and Mayor Carolyn Allen escorted the riders into the Greensboro Coliseum. Our group had grown to include fifteen local youth leaders, their advisor, and two local reporters. Together we watched a documentary on the Woolworth sit-ins and lesser-known golf-ins that took place no more than ten minutes from where our diverse group was eating lunch. We held our breath while witnessing the humiliation, violence, and fear that the student protestors endured at the hands of white supremacists. Later, the black and white footage became real to us as we stood inside the gutted Woolworth and our guide shared stories about the vandalism and destruction that usually occurred on the sit-ins' anniversaries. Thirty years ago Woolworth served as the town's social center; now a fundraising thermometer and donors' names decorate the store windows as the efforts to convert the abandoned building into the International Sit-In Museum continue. $2 million of the necessary $10 million dollars have been raised; the project has not received enthusiastic support from the community.
Long after we were checked into our rooms, we sat together in the motel's dining room eating homemade fried fish, and talking about our goals and expectations for the trip, the horror of what we had seen, and our hopes that we would have been leaders in a time when bravery and leadership could bring harm to yourself and your family. We had forgotten our exhaustion and the miles we traveled.
Our morning was spent in the home of Modjeska Simkins. We gathered outside the boarded-up one-story clapboard on a downtown street in Columbia, South Carolina to hear how Simkins hosted NAACP meetings and demanded that white leaders treat blacks with the fairness and dignity that all of God's children deserve. Her leadership threatened the reigning Ku Klux Klan, and they retaliated by showering bullets into her living room as she lay on the floor protecting herself. Participants' travel journals began to fill with stories of brutality, inhumanity, fear, courage, loss, and triumph.
The long stretch of road to Atlanta provided time for two of the trip's treasures, Allen Gould and Rabbi "Buzz" Bogage, to share their experiences from Freedom Summer. They provided the perspective of the Northern Jews who were drawn to the South by their commitment to tikkun olam. They spoke openly about their experiences in the segregated South, some humorous and some terrifying. They initiated a conversation about Black-Jewish relationships that spanned the rest of the journey. They told us how their decision join the Freedom Riders of 1964 changed their lives. Two young Jewish men had traveled to the South to teach, and to help disenfranchised blacks. The teachers learned much more from those people than they ever expected.
By mid-afternoon we arrived at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center where Hosea Williams stood in the courtyard. If anyone overlooked him, standing there in a red satin shirt and bib-overalls, they took notice when he began to speak. With one hand hooked into an overall strap and the other pushing large frames up the bridge of his nose, he spoke of the Atlanta that King lived in, and the many ways it has changed. He told us that King refused to leave his dilapidated home in the inner city, because "a true leader lives with his people." He related tales of King's vision, altruism, and solidarity with his cause. With a charming self-deprecating humor, Williams offered himself as an example of a black man who swayed from his commitment to the civil rights movement, distracted by the glitter and gain of his personal financial success. He warned that blacks will never have equal rights in our country if they did not invest in the communities they come from.
Just before sundown, the bus pulled in front of Atlanta's Temple Emanu-El and Rabbi Stanley Davids invited us to join his congregation for a memorable interfaith service. The riders sat at tables quietly eating chicken dinners. Many of them had never been in a synagogue, or a Shabbat service. Many of them felt like they were visitors, or even outsiders. Those feelings melted when Rabbi Davids completed the birkat ha-mazon and asked the song leader of the group to lead us in a song before services began. Nominated by his peers, Antonio Pryce from North Carolina begrudgingly made his way to the front of the room. Although he exclaimed that we were embarrassing him, he sang beautifully through a bashful smile. He sang an old spiritual that began: "I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom." By the second verse we had all joined in together, filling the room with our voices. All reservations were forgotten. Rabbi Davids had invited a local Reverend and Baptist choir to the services as well. Sermons, simchas inspirational readings, singing, and prayer filled the synagogue. All of us left the service with the sense that we had become part of a large family for the evening. We had found a home away from home.
After a morning service led by Rabbi Miller at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, we moved to the center of town for a presentation by Mayor Richard Arrington. Our excitement and pride escalated as we learned that June 19th had been declared Freedom Ride Day in honor of the journey that we were undertaking. Our tone became somber as we crossed the street and entered the reconstructed 16th Street Baptist Church where four little girls taken by the blast of a Klan bombing. With the image of their young faces etched in our minds, we continued on to the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum. Each exhibit brought us deeper into the South's history, uncomfortably close to the intricate network of repression and racism that formed the foundation of these towns' power structure. We began the trip by hearing about acts of non-violent protest and the martyrdom of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, but we could only begin to realize their heroism by traveling into the remnants of the world they fought to change. Our eyes were beginning to open — many of us never realized how much we had to learn.
The last stop for the day was the home of the Voting Rights Movement, Selma, Alabama. The blood shed in the town gave birth to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Museum was small, and lacked the polished sophistication that we had seen in Birmingham. One display was a simply a collection of plaster imprints of the marchers' feet and summaries of their activities in the movement, and an account of their current lives. This simple exhibit was enormously effective in showing the protestors as everyday people with lives that extend beyond rallies and marches. The black and white photographs lining the museum walls were framed in thin, black plastic frames — some had faded, and others had been damaged over time. Every photograph captured the violence, tension, and fear that seemed to hang in the hot, sticky summer air of the South in the 1960s. Every picture chipped away at your feelings of complacency and security. During dinner, our group was addressed by two of the Movement's "foot soldiers," who still reside there. They told the story of how their protest march over the bridge incurred the wrath of local authorities, attack dogs, and the Klan. They told us how proud they were of our commitment to civil rights, in a time when the face of injustice and bigotry is not as easy to recognize, as it was in their time.
The day began by crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge with the new additions to our family. Youth leaders from St. Louis, Barbara Umbogy, Schwerner's cousin, and a group from New Orleans, Louisiana added to our numbers as Ben Chaney, brother of James Chaney, and Sister Antona Ebo, a leader of the march in Selma following "Bloody Sunday," led the group across the historical landmark. We joined hands and our voices rang out in an endless stream of old spirituals. Our march raised curious stares from passing commuters, and it raised our spirits. Tears streamed down cheeks and travelers embraced each other. Our connection to history was growing. We were becoming a unit and our purpose was crystallizing as we traveled closer to Mississippi, the epicenter of racial conflict in America.
The bus was several miles away from the murder site of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. People were engrossed in conversations, meeting the new riders, and catching up on much-needed rest. Sister Elsa approached the front of the bus and asked for a moment of silence; we were entering a place of spiritual significance. The group had watched several documentaries about Freedom Summer, and knew the gruesome details of the murders that took place thirty-five years ago. We knew about the terror and unspeakable brutality that transpired on the dark Neshoba County Road. We listened to Sister Elsa as she prepared us to enter sanctified grounds.
There wasn't a historical marker, only a fork in a road, a field, and daisies swaying in the oppressive heat. Riders had each brought a stone from their hometown and we piled them, one by one, creating a monument to honor of the sacrifices made by three young heroes for our freedom. Self-selected individuals led the memorial service. The religious leaders offered prayers; we said the Kaddish. Children from New Orleans led us in songs of praise and remembrance with the voices of innocence and wonder. When a pick-up truck drove by our service for the second time, heads turned in suspicion. For the first time we felt the sickening fear that our actions could bring harm to the group. Chaperones kept the younger children close.
That evening we were the guests of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, the Chaney family's church. The riders filled in between well-dressed men and women as they casually fanned themselves, seemingly impervious to the Mississippi heat. Ben Chaney had envisioned this trip; he traveled with us from the beginning, but he addressed the group for the first time in the chapel. He spoke of his brother, who was going to teach him how to drive that summer, but never came home. Ben addressed the issue of justice, "My brother and his companions are dead and the state of Mississippi has yet to fulfill its judicial responsibility by prosecuting those who conspired and committed the murders." The murderers spent some time in jail for the charge of depriving the boys of their civil rights. One murderer still lives in the town. There has been no justice, and no healing for the black community of Philadelphia, Mississippi.
The congregation prepared a sumptuous dinner for the riders following the service. We had a chance to meet with some of the town's people. Their stories were incredible. One man confided that "Blacks in his town were still afraid to vote, because the building in which they would register, shares space with the town officials who condoned the actions of the Klan thirty years ago." The woman who made the delicious pound cake was 84 year old Mabel Stele. Mabel was at a church meeting the night the Klan came to burn it down. They held her hostage, and she didn't believe they would let her live to see morning. She lived through that night, and now she is the only living witness to that night of dread. She spends her days writing the history of the town so that it cannot be forgotten. Our interaction with the town's people made it clear that unspeakable acts of hatred and racism were not relics of the past for those who still live in the South. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner's vision has yet to be realized.
We spent the early hours of the day at James Earl Chaney's gravesite. A man dressed in traditional Kente cloth beat African drums and summoned the ancestors to bless our gathering. A member of the Mt. Olive congregation explained that the gravesite had been subjected to repeated attacks of destruction and vandalism. The five-foot marble headstone was anchored to the ground with steel braces to prevent its removal, and the eternal flame was damaged beyond repair. James' mother has expressed the desire to return to Philadelphia, but is fearful of what awaits her here. She was there thirty-five years ago, when her son and two young advocates for equality lost their lives for their efforts to integrate Mississippi. Their murderers stood in solidarity with the law of the land, and the years have done little to open hearts and minds.
The rest of the day was spent in legislative workshops — moving toward our goal to generate and promote a more informed and empowered electorate. The consensus among the youth participants was that their knowledge of the civil rights movement was insufficient, and they weren't quite sure how to advance the civil rights agenda. One participant remarked that it was crucial for her to "know the past, because the victories and defeats of the past serve as our foundation for advancements in the future." Although bigoted violence and inequality continue to plague our nation times have changed. Youth activists do not have the narrow focus and structure of the Freedom Summer Movement to connect to. The Movement has expanded its horizons over the last thirty-five years. Women's issues, gay and lesbian concerns, disabled rights, and the equality of all ethnic and religious groups are on the agenda for civil rights workers. Being a defender of freedom now requires a fundamental working knowledge of the workings of Congress, a connection to grass roots coalitions, and Internet access. Times have changed, but the trip has taught us that the work of Freedom Summer is not complete.
In the rare and final quiet hours of the trip, we collected each other's contact information and finalized plans to publish an update newsletter.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism welcomed the riders to the Nation's capitol. Rabbi David Saperstein addressed the group in the RAC conference room where lawyers once spent late nights drafting the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act. At the culmination of their trip, the participants met with several champions of civil rights on Capitol Hill. The group engaged Representatives John Lewis (D-GA) and Bob Filner (D-CA) and Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) in challenging discussions about pending legislation and partisan politics. One participant assured the Members that "with the inspiration from those who fought before us, and the knowledge of what still needs to be accomplished, we commit ourselves to the challenge of being advocates for social justice at state and local level, as well as in the halls of Congress. We have found our voice and dedicate ourselves to using it in the legislative and electoral processes that we have all taken for granted." The final event was a White House meeting with Ben Johnson, Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office for the President's Race Initiative for One America.
Freedom Ride 1999 equipped a new generation of civil rights advocates with the knowledge and passion that are necessary to continue the work of Freedom Summer. The riders were a group of self-selected strangers, who came to the buses with a variety of personal agendas and goals. From the very beginning of the journey it was evident that the participants were aware of the legacy behind them — we felt the weight of James Chaney, Michael Goodman, and Andrew Schwerner's spirits. We came together and worked as a unit. We seized the opportunity to build alliances and coalitions with civil rights activists from around the country. When the time drew near for our journey to end, we organized lists of contact information and constructed a network to work together as a coalition. Our desire to maintain relationships with new advocacy allies, and to uphold our social action activism were the greatest testament to the program's success, and long lasting effects.
Kayle Becker was a Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in 1999. Along with the Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner Unity Coalition, she planned and administrated Freedom Ride '99.