Title: Freedom Riders
Date: May 8, 2011 (3rd Sunday of Easter)
Texts: Luke 24:13-35, Acts 2:36-41
Author: Isaac Villegas
This past week was a historic week for people in America. This week, fifty years ago, in 1961, a group, assembled from all over the country, got on buses in Washington, D.C., and began their trip to the South. The Freedom Riders—that’s what they were called, “black and white, young and old, religious and secular, Northern and Southern.” Their goal was to press the Southern states to adhere to a recent Supreme Court decision, Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which said that it was unconstitutional for states to maintain segregated waiting rooms, lunch counters, and restrooms for interstate travelers. Wherever the buses made a stop, white Freedom Riders would use the facilities for blacks, and black Riders would use the “whites only” services.
The Freedom Riders weren’t naïve. They knew that they would be in for some trouble, especially as they would make their way through the Deep South. But they were committed to nonviolence. This is what James Farmer, one of the main organizers had to say in an interview right before they started their journey: he said,
If there is an arrest, we will accept that arrest… and if there is violence we will accept that violence without responding in kind… We will not pay fines because we feel that by paying money to a segregated state we would help it perpetuate segregation.
As you can hear from Mr. Farmer, not only were the Freedom Riders committed to nonviolence, but they were also committed to noncooperation with injustice. They would not cooperate with an unjust legal system, which meant that they would not pay fines; they would not pay bail. One of their mottos was, “Jail—no bail.” They planned on filling up the jails. This was also a strategy they learned from Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance movement in India: to render the system inoperable by flooding the jails with demonstrators.
On May 4th, 1961, they boarded two buses headed south, some traveled with Greyhound and the others with Trailways. They came from a diversity of places and from different walks of life: Francis and Walter Bergmans, a retired couple from Michigan; they were teachers. Genevieve Hughes, a twenty-eight year old stock broker in New York. Ed Blankenheim, a carpenter from Tucson, Arizona. Rev. Benjamin Elton Cox, from Whiteville, Tennessee, who was serving as a pastor in High Point, North Carolina. Those are just a few of the people. There were 13 in all.
The Freedom Riders made their way through Virginia, stopping in Richmond, Petersburg, Farmville, Lynchburg, and Danville. At each stop, the white travelers would enter the “blacks only” waiting rooms and order coffee or lunch, and the black members of the group would do the same in the “whites only” areas. The stops in Virginia were uneventful, except for Danville, where they encountered some resistance when a white member of their group asked to be served at the “Colored counter,” as it was called.
They crossed into North Carolina and made stops in Greensboro, Salisbury, and Charlotte. The first arrest for the Freedom Riders took place in Charlotte, when a black passenger tried to get his shoes shined at a “whites only” station in the bus terminal. He spent two days in jail, but was quickly acquitted; the judge referred to the precedent set by the Supreme Court’s recent decision. This was an early success for the Riders.
But the success was short lived. As they headed further south, tension increased at their stops. At the Rock Hill terminal in South Carolina, John Lewis, a black Rider, tried to order a cup of coffee in the “whites only” waiting room. When he refused to leave, a group of young men knocked him to the ground, kicking him and stomping on his body. Al Bigelow, a white Rider, stepped between the young men and John Lewis who was bleeding on the floor. This stunned the thugs for a moment, but then they turned their hate toward him and beat him as well. When Genevieve Hughes, a white woman Rider, stepped in the way, she was also thrown to the ground with the other two. Finally, the police officer, who had been watching all of this take place, told the young men to quit their beating.
The Riders left South Carolina and made they way down into Georgia—through Augusta and Athens, arriving in Atlanta on May 13. Little did they know that the Ku Klux Klan was organizing a bloody welcoming party for them in Alabama.
In a meeting with the Klan leadership, a Birmingham police sergeant told them that the police would look the other way when they assaulted the Freedom Riders as they entered the city. Here’s what the sergeant said, speaking for the police departments in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama:
We’re going to allow you fifteen minutes… You can beat ’em, bomb ’em, maim ’em, kill ’em. I don’t give a shit. There will be absolutely no arrests. You can assure every Klansman in the country that no one will be arrested in Alabama for [those] fifteen minutes.
It was Mother’s Day, 1961. The Freedom Riders were on their way from Atlanta to Birmingham, with a stop in the small city of Anniston.
As the bus pulled into the terminal in Anniston, the passengers could see a large crowd out the windows, a mob had gathered. The people were shouting, “Dirty Communists,” and chanting the Nazi slogan, “Sieg heil!” As soon as the bus came to a stop, the mob starting smashing the windows, banging on the bus, slashing the ties, and hurling rocks through the windows at the passengers.
The bus driver managed to get the bus going again, but after driving a few blocks, he had to stop because of the slashed tires. It was one o’clock in the afternoon; people were just leaving morning worship at their churches. These same people, dressed in their Sunday’s best, joined the Klansmen and surrounded the bus. A teenage boy had a crowbar and was smashing the windows near the door of the bus, trying to get in. Soon the crowd began rocking the bus, trying to tip it over. When that didn’t work, someone from the crowd threw a bundle of rags on fire into the bus. It ignited and the Freedom Riders where overwhelmed with black smoke and flames. In a panic, they crawled out of the smashed windows. One of the black riders, Hank Thomas, was lying on the grass gasping for breath. A white man came up to him and asked if he was okay. Before he could respond, the man struck him across the head with a baseball bat. Bystanders noticed the commotion on the streets and stood back, watching. No one did anything, except for a young white girl, a resident of Anniston. Her name was Janie Miller, and she was 12 years old.
Janie grabbed a 5-gallon bucket. Running back and forth, she filled and refilled the bucket with water and offered it to the choking victims. As she did so, she was insulted and taunted by the people in the crowd, her neighbors, her community. Afterward she was ostracized, and even threatened. She and her family left town, out of fear.
If we want to think about Mother’s day, or about parenting, or raising children, what would it mean to raise up a kid to be like Janie Miller—a little girl who was so full of humanity, so full of compassion, that she defied an angry and violent crowd in order to offer water to people who were choking?
The Riders quickly sent word to Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham. Immediately, Shuttlesworth sent the deacons of his congregation to rescue them from the Anniston mobs.
After the violence, while some were receiving care at the hospital, the beaten and bloodied Freedom Riders gathered at Bethel Baptist Church for a worship service. They sang freedom songs, and God restored their spirits. Rev. Shuttlesworth said in his sermon, “When white and black men are willing to be beaten up together, it is a sure sign they will soon walk together as brothers… Others may be beaten up, but freedom is worth anything.”
This is an Easter story, an Emmaus-road kind of story—a story of disciples on a journey, on the road; a story of life, of freedom from death. When the resurrected Jesus returns from the dead, he walks and talks with his disciples, he eats with them and enjoys their fellowship. He is present to them; and with his presence comes the power of resurrection, a power that opens a path through death, and beyond death; our lives are opened to receive a life that no longer plays by the rules of the game, of revenge, of resentment. The powers of death organize our world in such a way that requires blood-letting, sacrificial bodies, scapegoats. According to the powers of death, justice means revenge—killing one person on behalf of his victims.
But Jesus comes back to reveal a different way, to show us the futility of death, the impotence at the heart of those who seek revenge, the hollowness at the center of a world that is powered by cycles of resentment—of one person or country seeking to destroy another, and in turn that person or country looking for a way to retaliate. Filling more and more tombs with victims will only leave us hollow, empty—consumed with an emptiness that always seeks more deaths, because it is never satisfied.
But with the empty tomb, people are invited to leave that world behind and find new life with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, the one who testifies to a path beyond death’s control. The resurrected presence of Jesus unmasks the powerlessness of those who resort to using death as a tool for controlling the world. Resurrection reveals death to be ineffective. Death doesn’t last. Those who use death for their own purposes don’t have the final say. On the road to Emmaus, we find a dead man who talks, someone who speaks the words of life, of hope, after the powers of death did all that they could do.
Jesus reveals the heart of a different world, the kingdom of God, where the cycles of death and resentment are healed with grace and forgiveness. In our passage from Acts, when Peter preaches to the crowds in Jerusalem, he tells them that they killed Jesus; and, as a follower of Jesus, Peter is here to announce the possibility of forgiveness and mercy. He offers God’s invitation for people to untangle their lives from the powers of death. Repent, Peter says to the crowds, and you will be forgiven (Acts 2:38). Resurrection means that Jesus comes back to invite people into the power of God’s forgiveness, to live without vengeance and resentment, to live beyond the world’s cycles of death.
That’s why I said that the story of the Freedom Riders is another Easter story, a continuation of the story of Jesus’ resurrection, the story of how God untangles our lives from the powers of death. The Freedom Riders lived as if death were not; they did not let the threat of death turn around their movement of life. And, like Jesus, their bruised and bloodied bodies invited others to follow. Soon the thirteen Freedom Riders were joined by hundreds of other people (a total of 436). And as more and more people integrated interstate travel, the people in the Deep South had no choice but to change their laws. Their violence proved ineffective.
Easter is an invitation into the life of Jesus, an invitation into resurrection—to let the power that raised Jesus from the dead also flow through us, through our lives; to let God untangle our lives from the powers of death, from the desire for revenge, of paying back evil for evil.
Easter is an invitation into a life beyond death, free from the cycles of resentment, , the power of resurrection, the power of life, not death. Easter a nonviolent power that unmasks the hollowness, the emptiness, the nihilism, of those whose power depends on the threat of death.
 Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 98.
 Ibid., 92.
 Ibid., 111.
 Ibid., 94.
 Ibid., 136.
 Ibid., 143-148.
 Ibid., 154.
 Ibid, 161.
 James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001), 41-44.