“Boarding that Greyhound bus to travel through the heart of the Deep South, I felt good. I felt happy. I felt liberated. I was like a soldier in a nonviolent army. I was ready.”
–Congressman John Lewis
In 1961, my dear friend and late Congressman John Lewis was a 21-year-old student leader from American Baptist College in Nashville when he joined an interracial group traveling through the South by bus to test the recent Supreme Court decision banning segregation in interstate travel. These were the Freedom Riders—more than 400 Black and white volunteers who risked their lives and freedom 60 years ago to face down segregation in the Deep South. The original group organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began with 13 riders who left Washington, D.C. on May 4, 1961, with plans to arrive in New Orleans on May 17, the seventh anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. During that ride and the 60 others that followed that summer and fall, John Lewis and many others were beaten, brutalized, and arrested. Buses were firebombed and destroyed. But at every step, brave and determined new volunteers traveled to meet the riders and take their places. The 1961 Freedom Rides brought national attention to the cause, led Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the Justice Department to strengthen the laws outlawing segregation in interstate travel, and marked a crucial early turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.
For young people today, the fight against segregated buses and train cars might feel like a triumphant victory that is now ancient history. But the dangerous and systemic assaults on voting rights happening across our nation right now are a stark reminder that even though we won that battle and many others, the war is still not over. During a May 1865 American Anti-Slavery Society debate on whether the organization’s work was complete with the end of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass issued a famous warning on the need for ongoing vigilance: “Slavery has been called a great many names, and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth next.”
Systemic racism, white supremacy, and inequality did not end with either Emancipation or the Civil Rights Movement. The same forces that used poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and violent intimidation against earlier generations of citizens are continuing to use every voter suppression tool at their disposal to try to cling to power right now, and in many places “election integrity” has become the latest new name for a very old snake. In June, Black Voters Matter held a Freedom Rides for Voting Rights bus tour from Mississippi to Washington, D.C. These 60th anniversary rides both honored the original riders and showed just how much is still at stake as the fight to protect our sacred right to vote rages today.
This week, President Biden and Vice President Harris held a White House meeting with key civil rights leaders, who stressed the urgent need for taking more forceful action immediately during what must become a “summer of activism.” The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is one of several legislative battlegrounds. In a White House proclamation on the Freedom Rides anniversary, President Biden said: “Across his lifetime of service in and out of Government, John Lewis was the moral compass of our Nation — though he absorbed the force of human nature’s cruelty, he emanated dignity and grace. On the anniversary of his journey on the Freedom Rides, I am reminded of the message he shared with me before he passed away last summer: that we must stay focused on the work left undone to heal this Nation.” He added: “My Administration also supports further legislation to protect that most fundamental right [to vote] — to make our democracy more equitable and accessible for all Americans.” But as other lawmakers continue enacting legislation explicitly seeking to do the exact opposite in state after state across the country right now, today’s nonviolent soldiers must stay focused, stay organized, and stay on the move.