|Freedom riders' bus in flames, 1961|
by Alex Mikulich | Jul. 19, 2014
At a time when there seems to be deepening conflict over the meaning of freedom, this summer, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, offers a fresh opportunity to reflect upon the sacrifices made to achieve freedom. The recently released film "Freedom Riders" teaches us about the deep yearning of African-Americans for the full human flourishing of everyone.
Take the example of Diane Nash, one of the student leaders trained in nonviolence under the tutelage of the Rev. James Lawson at Fisk University in 1959-60. Alongside John L. Lewis, among others, Nash helped lead the nonviolent sit-ins in Nashville, Tenn., in early 1960.
On May 14, 1961, Ku Klux Klan members firebombed a Freedom Rider bus outside Anniston, Ala., intending to burn to death everyone inside. Both Alabama Gov. John Patterson and Birmingham Police Chief Bull Connor declared that they would not protect the Freedom Riders from violence.
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy responded by sending John Seigenthaler, his assistant, to ensure that the Freedom Riders made it safely from Birmingham to New Orleans after the firebombing.
In a historic telephone conversation on May 16, 1961, Seigenthaler, with all the power of his position, commanded Nash and other Freedom Riders to end the bus rides in order to prevent loss of life. Seigenthaler recalls the conversation with Nash like this:
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"You know that spiritual -- 'like a tree standing by the water, I will not be moved'? She would not be moved. And ... soon I was shouting, 'Young woman do you understand what you are doing? ... Do you understand that you're gonna get somebody killed?' "
After a pause, Nash replied to Seigenthaler: "Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night before they left [on the bus for Birmingham]. We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence."
Seigenthaler concludes: "That is virtually a direct quote of the words that came out of that child's mouth. Here I am, an official of the United States government, representing the president and the attorney general, talking to a student at Fisk University. And she in a very quiet but strong way gave me a lecture.""