Freedom Riders Revisited

There was a great article published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on Sunday July 3, 2011. I felt it was worth preserving here so I did….
It was written by one of the Freedom Riders, John Curtis Raines, a man born to privilege, but moved to participate in the fight for freedom and equality. The punch line is found in the final paragraphs, when he points out that the battle is not over yet… the problem now is huge difference between the rich and the middle class in America today… well worth the read!!!

Get on the bus
Freedom Riders’ work remains unfinished

Fifty years ago this month, I arrived here in Little Rock for the first time. I road in on a Trailways bus with four other Freedom Riders. Fifty years ago, here in Little Rock, I was arrested and put in jail because the five of us—three blacks and two whites—got off the bus together and went together into the “white” waiting room, and sat down. We were arrested on the charge of “a threatened breach of the peace.” We were quite properly arrested. We did intend to breach the peace, the socalled peace of legalized segregation. We wanted to and did challenge and break those laws that should never have been made laws in the first place.
The judge who found us guilty and put us in jail was named Quinn Glover. For me that jail sentence would become a moment of truth, the beginning of a second education that I wasn’t supposed to get. How so? What kind of education was I not supposed to get?
I was born white and male. Less obvious was the fact that I was born into a family of considerable class privilege. When I first became aware of things around me in Minneapolis, Minn., back in the late 1930s, my family and I were living in a house with five fireplaces and seven bathrooms. There was a live-in maid and for the first five years of my life I would be raised by a governess. I didn’t ask for any of that, but that’s what I got.
It was the total package of privilege. There were private schools and private clubs and private summer camps. There were tennis lessons and sailing lessons and horseback riding lessons. The first world I learned, my first education, was a world I learned from top down, from inside privilege and power. But nobody back then told me that.
Fifty years ago this month, one of my own kind—a white male of class privilege, Judge Quinn Glover—sent me to jail. For the first time in my life I found myself outside power and regarded by power as an enemy—and power had the power to punish me for that. Without that jail I would be much less suspicious, much less critical of power than I am today. Without that jail I would have remained selfsatisfied and tame—enjoying without thinking about it the privileges I got without my choosing it with my birth.
I came to the South 50 years ago riding a bus because I wanted to help black folks get some of the public freedoms I already enjoyed—not a very radical or radicalizing reason—a kind of noblesse oblige. Instead the black community of the South saved my life, both literally and figuratively. It was an education most of us privileged white boys never got, and didn’t even know enough to miss it. Without asking for it or even wanting it, I got a second chance at life.
So, thank you, Little Rock. Thank you, Judge Glover. But especially, thank you Rev. Benjamin Elton Cox and Bliss Ann Malone and Annie Lumpkin and all the other courageous young and not-so-young black folks of the South who stood up for America by sitting down at the lunch counter, who went to prison and by that act saved freedom in our land, who found a way and made a way where there was no way. Thank you to all those nameless ones who made history even as the forgotten ones of history.
Let me share the stories of a few of those forgotten ones. I never learned their names, but they taught me things I needed to learn and, in one case, literally saved my life.
I came to the South again in 1964 to join the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The idea was to bring a thousand students from the North, mostly white, and join with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee workers in Mississippi to work on a voter registration drive and establish local freedom schools. I was assigned to Hattiesburg, Miss. By then I was married and had two small children. My wife Bonnie gave me permission to go. The majority of the white folks in Mississippi regarded us white protesters as betrayers of our own race. There were, however, a few exceptions. One was a music professor at the local university who spoke with a thick German accent. One night he gathered perhaps ten local white Mississippians who were in favor of our activity. We met in his living room and because of the fear of local white retaliation the windows were covered with blankets.
I asked him: “Why are you doing this? The administration of your university is highly politicized and if they find out you could lose your job.” The man, a white man of some 50 years or so, answered simply and directly and very powerfully. He said: “Why do I do this? Because I come from Aushwitz.” It was the first time I met a Holocaust survivor.
The last time I would go South as a civil rights worker, and the time I nearly got killed, was in May of 1965. A black Baptist preacher, Charles Sherrod, who had been a fellow student with me at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, was leading a voter registration drive in Newton, the county seat of Baker County in southwest Georgia. In that county, the black population constituted a two-thirds majority, but in 1965 not one black was registered to vote. Sherrod phoned from Newton back to the seminary in New York because the black demonstrators were getting routinely beaten by the local white toughs. And the FBI and the northern news media would not come the 50 miles from Albany, Ga., to Newton because back then white violence against blacks was not considered newsworthy. So Sherrod asked for some white guys to come and join the protest. I was one of two who did that. And sure enough, the FBI and the northern news media showed up.
We were marching together around the county courthouse where the voter registration office was located. Just in front of me was a black woman of some forty years with two of her children marching just in front of her. A white woman half her age came up and said: “Bessie, you get out of that line or never come to work at my house again!” Bessie stayed in that line, lost her job, but a few months later she got her vote.
Here is how my life was put at risk, and how a local black farmer whose name I never learned saved my life. I had rented a car to get from Albany to Newton, and a local black protester had an epileptic seizure and needed to be taken to the hospital up in Albany. They asked me if I would take him, and I said I would. But I didn’t even get out of town before the cops arrested me for, so they said, “driving on the wrong side of the street.” It was early evening, and I was arrested and thrown into the local jail. Usually, the jail is in the basement of the county court house and is relatively safe. But not in Newton. Instead, the jail was an isolated, freestanding squat building out behind the court house and shrouded in darkness. There were only bars, no glass in the windows. There was a black part of the jail and a white part. I was the only one in the white part. All the local Ku Klux Klan would have to do is pour gasoline through the window and throw in a match and that would have been the end of John Raines.
But the local black community knew I was in danger and they got a local black farmer to put his farm up as collateral for my bail. The next morning, I was out.
Iwent South to help others get their freedom. And they gave me back my life, together with a second education a privileged white boy from the North wasn’t supposed to get, one many back then didn’t think I needed to get. I got what I needed and I am grateful for that. Thank you, South. Thank you, black community of protest. Thank you, Rev. Cox and Rev. Sherrod for being the pastors this white boy needed back then.
But that was then, and this is now. Back then the struggle for justice was a racial struggle. And we made some progress on that. But today, the struggle for justice is a class struggle, a struggle against the vastly expanding inequality of income and of wealth that today assaults our nation and threatens our freedom.
For working-class and middle-class Americans the dream is turning into a nightmare, a nightmare of unemployment and underemployment, a nightmare of being underpaid and overworked, a nightmare of owing more to the bank than your house is worth. Wall Street may be back in the big bucks, but Main Street is running on empty. And most of this has been going on for 40 years now.
Here’s what’s gone wrong. Successive administrations in Washington, both Republican and Democrat, stood by while our factories closed, stood by while the working class way of life was dismantled and destroyed. Yes, they talked about new, good jobs—first it was “high technology” and then “the dot-com economy” and now “the new green economy.” But those jobs weren’t that many and they didn’t pay that well. The jobs that did come were at the lower end of the service economy—clerks in Wal-Mart or Home Depot, or aides in hospitals or assisted living homes. Meanwhile, the top 20 percent of income earners were doing just fine, and the top 1 percent were doing even better; they were fast at work stealing America.
Here’s how that story of stealing America gets reflected in economic statistics.
Let’s go back 30 years ago. In 1976 the percentage of total U.S. income going to the wealthiest one percent was nine percent. Thirty years later, in 2006, that same one percent increased their income hold on national income to 24 percent. That’s nearly a threefold increase in inequality of income in 30 years. How did that happen? This is how. In those thirty years four-fifths of the increase in the total national income went to that wealthiest one percent. For most of us, our income was stagnant (even adding a second paycheck), but for the top one percent, their income was exploding.
When talking about inequality we should talk about wealth because, besides income, wealth includes the value of a house, the value of stocks and bonds, the value of retirement accounts, and so on. Wealth measures inequality more accurately than income alone. By the end of that 30 years between 1976 and 2006 the richest one percent of U.S. households owned 33.8 percent of all the national wealth. That’s more wealth in the top one percent than the combined wealth of 90 percent of the rest of American households. In those thirty years we became a vastly unequal country.
And that inequality is not just about money. Concentrated wealth translates into concentrated political clout. And in recent years the Supreme Court has made the political effect of that inequality much worse. The court decided to count money as speech and to count corporations as a person, so that wealthy persons and wealthy corporations can now spend as much on elections as they want. Money is speech, corporations are persons? That’s nonsense. But the result of that irrational rationalization is that Big Money is taking away from the rest of us the meaning of our vote. Big Money is buying America, and five out of the nine Supreme Court Justices say that it’s legal. Is it legal to steal a country from its own people?
That’s not the America I was taught. America is supposed to be about a promise, a promise about average folks working hard, living clean and each generation doing a little better. But that America is being lost.
Yes, it’s easy to get cynical. All you have to do is have your eyes open. But only those who don’t care about freedom can afford to get cynical. Those of us who do care have to fight. Because freedom can never be freedom for the few at the expense of the many. Political freedom is built upon and preserved by equality—not absolute equality but that relative equality of common citizens sharing an equal voice in how things are run, and for whose benefit. That’s the America I was taught.
Fifty years ago we got on a bus together. We went to jail together. Some of us lost our lives. Fifty years ago, struggling together, we won some freedom for America. But today that freedom is threatened once again. This time the issue is not race but a new class of the wealthy few who want to rule the rest of us as if they were princes or kings, rule us without our consent.
So, it’s time to get on the bus again, the bus called “freedom.” Our destination is “a nation of the people, by the people and for the people”—that dream of a nation that still lies ahead. We the people must demand of the wealthy what they don’t want to do—and that is to join with the rest of us and fight for the future of America that belongs to all of its citizens. And that means new taxation policies. And it means new regulations on the flow of international investments. It means the wealthy must join the rest of us and begin to re-invest in things made in America.
Fifty years ago we got on a bus together, 50 years ago we sat down at lunch counters together, 50 years ago we marched on the streets together, we went to jail together. Fifty years ago we put our dreams together—and we won some freedom for America. Well, it’s time to get on the bus together once again—the freedom bus of 2011. It’s right there, waiting for us.
John Curtis Raines is emeritus professor of religion at Temple University, a United Methodist minister and recipient of the Lindback Distinguished Teacher award. Raines was one of five Freedom Riders to arrive in Little Rock on July 10, 1961, and will be speaking at a symposium at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center on July 9 and attending the public commemoration to unveil a plaque in honor of the Freedom Riders at the Old State House the following day. For more information see

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