Democracy for African Americans is under attack. This is according to a new report from the National Urban League. As history repeats itself, so does the call to let freedom ride.

The question remains, “Which side are you on?” Are you going to save a seat for human oppression to travel with us even as we move forward? Or are you going to move over and let freedom ride?

On May 4, 1961, a Greyhound bus left Washington, D.C. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “segregation in interstate bus and rail stations was unconstitutional,” seven African Americans and six European Americans, known as the Freedom Riders, traveled through parts of the South to test it.

Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality and led by James Farmer, their goal was to integrate interstate buses and bus terminals. It was an intentional act of resistance against illegal Jim Crow practices and a part of other efforts around the country to gain voting rights and to integrate public transit, schools, businesses and libraries.

As a result, these civil rights activists, including a young John Lewis, were met with mob violence. They were greeted with pipes, bricks and Molotov cocktails. It wasn’t a pretty sight, as their efforts weren’t received well.

The front page of The New York Times read “Negro ‘Ride’ Plan Stirs New Furor.”  The Boston Herald reported, “14 More Jobless Negroes Sent North.”

But it was more than bad press. Later, there would be the Reverse Freedom Rides, an idea concocted and organized by segregationists, who promised African Americans job opportunities in the North. However, when they arrived there by bus, they discovered that there was no job waiting for them. This cruel history has been nearly forgotten.

A bus with a damaged roof inside the National Civil Rights Museum.

(Photo: Starlette Thomas)

Still, what many Americans will never forget is one of the most infamous encounters, which occurred in Anniston, Alabama, on May 14, 1961. It was Mother’s Day, and the Freedom Riders arrived at the bus station to find the building locked.

Led by Ku Klux Klan leader William Chapel, a mob attacked the group with bats, chains and pipes. Before the local police arrived to interrupt the assault, the tires on the bus had been slashed, and the bus sustained significant damage.

The Freedom Riders were escorted out of the city — but not to safety. Just outside of the city limits but within the view of two highway patrolmen, they were attacked again by a mob, a member of which hurled a firebomb through a broken window while others tried to trap the Freedom Riders inside the bus by barricading the main door.

With the fuel tank soon to explode, the Freedom Riders managed to escape through windows and the main door. They avoided the smoke and the flames but not the mob which attacked them once more.

Pictures of their bloodied faces and burned-out mode of transportation covered many daily papers. This time, they were evacuated from Anniston in a convoy organized by Fred Shuttlesworth, a pastor and civil rights leader in Birmingham, Alabama.

“I didn’t know anything about fear,” Hank Thomas told Melissa Brown, a politics reporter for USA Today. “But I came out of Anniston with a renewed sense of determination.”

The late Congressman John Lewis called the Freedom Rides “a driving force.”  “Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society,” he said.

A new generation has, in fact, taken Lewis’s words to heart, to the streets and to the state houses.

With the recent ousting of two African American state lawmakers in Tennessee, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, for “disorderly behavior” due to their demand for protection against gun violence after a school shooting, there are increased calls to protect democracy and again to let freedom ride.

“We have to become better people by fundamentally transforming the conditions of our living together. This will require setting aside our comforting illusions,” wrote Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, in Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul.

It will require that we look back at history, acknowledge how we got here and be clear about what we will allow to continue.

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