50 Years Later, We Need Modern Freedom Riders

Two hundred thirty eight years ago, brave men and women stood up to an oppressive government, demanding justice for “a long train of abuses and usurpations” including unequal enforcement of laws, obstruction of justice, voter suppression, inadequate criminal justice, and taxation without representation. They piled into buggies and wagons and on horseback and arrived in Philadelphia, where they issued their Declaration and gave birth to a new nation.

Half a century ago, brave men and women piled onto buses and rode into the segregated American South, risking their safety and their lives to protest Jim Crow laws and demand equality for everyone, regardless of the color of their skin.

These Freedom Riders were young and old, black and white, male and female, Christian and Jew. They set off to do something so profound and yet so simple – to refuse to observe the signs that segregated bathrooms and lunch counters and bus seating. Black men and women dared to quench their thirst in the drinking fountain labeled “Whites Only.” Latinos demanded service at restaurants and coffee shops with signs that said “No Dogs, No Spanish, No Mexicans.” White men walked arm in arm with women of color in defiance of loud and aggressive hatred.

These Freedom Riders forever changed America. They gave voice to hundreds of thousands of others who supported equality but did not have the courage to speak up. They were arrested. They were attacked. They were ridiculed. Some died in their quest for the fight. Yet, the many surviving Freedom Riders were never deterred.

They stood up. They changed history. For this, we honor them.

The horrible Jim Crow laws of 50 years ago are gone, but racism, hate, prejudice, and inequality are not. Let’s honor the Freedom Riders of the 1960s by committing to be the Freedom Riders of 2014.

When we see a Jewish or Muslim student being bullied at school, we must stand up.

When we see an African American being unfairly passed over for a job, we must stand up.

When we see a resident with less-than-native English being ridiculed at a restaurant, we must stand up.

When we see a transgender woman being denied use of a public ladies’ restroom, we must stand up.

As Rabbi Israel Dresner, himself a Freedom Rider in June 1961, has said, “With the experience of the Jews, being segregated, ghettoized, excluded, massacred; how could [I] not participate? Our faith teaches one God, one human kind … we’re all from one family that started the whole shebang.”

On this anniversary of the Freedom Riders, and as we celebrate our nation’s birth, I ask you to join me in ensuring that the phrases “all men [and women] are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” which are enshrined in our Declaration of Independence ring true for all, not just for some.

Have a safe, happy, and healthy 4th of July holiday.

Published July 3, 2014