52 Strong: Remembering The Freedom Riders Of Montgomery, Ala.

Mar 4, 2015

The first installment of “52 Strong” comes to us from a Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, Ala. The series follows USU Professor Jason Gilmore and two of his students as they travel through the South as part of a civil rights pilgrimage.

Montgomery, Ala. is contested space. On the one hand, it was considered the cradle of the Confederacy. On the other, the birthplace of the modern civil rights movement. It is the stories of courage and determination of the civil rights movement that drew us here.

 

First Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL welcomed us in as family (and made us put on a concert for their congregations). We are forever in their debt. #usucivilrights #uwpilgrimage #bcpilgrimage

A video posted by @usucivilrights on

Mar 1, 2015 at 10:56pm PST

On the second day of our trip here, we met with Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr., a civil rights icon and a man who has dedicated his professional life to teaching the principals of non-violent direct action.

In 1961, only a short five years after the conclusion of the bus boycotts led by a young Martin Luther King Jr., Lafayette was one of a team of Freedom Riders who came to Montgomery on a Greyhound bus with the purpose of desegregating the downtown bus station. Upon arrival, the group was met with an angry mob that was waiting for them outside the Greyhound bus station.  The mob started their terror by targeting a group of journalists who had congregated to report on the event; smashing their cameras to ensure that the nation and the world would not see what happened there that day.

The mob then turned their anger on the Freedom Riders. True to form, the Freedom Riders did not resist with violence and were severely beaten for their actions.

We talked to Lafayette about his dedication to non-violence and how he has employed it to contest violence throughout the civil rights movement:

"Bernard Lafayette Jr., chairman of the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and distinguished senior scholar in residence at Emery University.

The whole idea of employing the concept of love for social change, that came when I was a student at the American Baptist College in Nashville and my professor believed in a social gospel and social change. I went to school in ’58, so you already had the Montgomery bus boycott. So, we talked a lot about Martin Luther King, and then we talked about Mahatma Gandhi. So, it started making sense to me, when I saw that even the force of love could be used in social action and social change. I always thought it was two separate things.

Once, for example, we were on a demonstration at a movie theater and we would go and seek to buy a ticket at the booth, and we were refused. We would go to the back of the line and just continue to go around in circles. Then, when the demonstration was over, we would all get together and walk back to the church. It would be at night.

We were bringing up the rear of the march, so we would walk backwards in other words, because many times the people who were hostile to us would come and pull people off of the rear of the march and beat them up.

So, as we were walking backwards, this fellow came walking up and he spat on Jim Lawson, this fellow next to me. So, Jim Lawson immediately said, 'Do you have a handkerchief?'

That’s what he’s asking the guy who spat on him. And the guy reached into the back [pocket], and he had one of these great big handkerchiefs, and handed it to him and Jim wiped himself off and said, 'Here you go.'

The guy had on a black leather jacket and boots and stuff like that and [Jim] said, 'What do you ride?'

He said, 'A hot rod.'

[Jim] said, 'Really? What kind is it?'

They got into a conversation about the hot rods and how many horsepower it had, and all that. This guy was so excited to tell him about it, because he was so excited about his bike, he walked all the way up to the church where we were. All of a sudden he looked up and saw the church and he said, 'I’ve go to go now, we can talk later.'

The fact that Jim Lawson asked him for a handkerchief, that’s what started it. He had confidence. This non-violence is not just a more powerful way, it’s a more desirable way, and it was consistent with the concept of love."

You can learn more about the civil rights pilgrimage on Facebook or on Instagram @usucivilrights.