The Precarious Nature of Racism: 40 people riding a bus

40 people riding a bus.

Last night I finally started watching the Freedom Riders’ documentary that aired on PBS in May (Oprah did a big lead up to it, also).

At the beginning of the documentary, a historian discussing the Jim Crow South remarks that the entire system was so incredibly precarious that EVERYTHING in the society, down to where people sat on a bus, had to reinforce the inferiority of people of color and the superiority of whites.  If one thing, even a tiny thing, suggested that a different type of society was possible/better or that people of color did, in fact, share the humanity of their white counterparts, the whole system could quickly come crashing down.

So, in reaction to this fear of the unstable nature of the Jim Crow system, white people often acted in ways that were shocking, violent, and completely disproportionate to the apparent threat.

For example, when a group of a dozen or so people (both white and black) rode through the south on a bus attempting to de-segregate some bus terminals, a mob of white people did this to bus (luckily no one was killed):

I’ve only made it through half of the documentary.  And so far, forty people have participated in the Freedom Rides (the number eventually rises close to 400 – at this link, I am talking about the May 4 and May 16 riders).  The level of violent response from white Southerners to these bus riders was so high that it got the ear and eye of the President of the US (JFK) and his attorney general (RFK).  In Montgomery in 1961, a mob threatened a church full of 1500 people who had gathered in support of the Freedom Riders, during which MLK spoke directly on the phone to RFK, and JFK and RFK forced the governor of the state to provide military protection to those people held hostage in the church.

40 people riding a bus.

Here’s the thing: those racists in the South were right.  The Jim Crow system was incredibly precarious.  Obviously.  Because all* it took to get JFK and RFK to really pay attention to what was happening to people of color in the South was for a few dozen brave, young adults to climb on board a bus and dare to ride it through Alabama and Mississippi.

*By “all” I am talking about people literally putting their bodies and their lives on the line.  By “all”, I am mainly referring to the very small number of people who very openly and vocally put their bodies and lives on the line (because, of course, in the every day of the Jim Crow South any person of color especially or any ally was constantly in danger and always threatened).

Also, ironically (or, perhaps, nicely) by reacting with such a high level of hate/anger/violence (which is, in and of itself, implicitly admitting to the shaky nature of the system in place), white Southerners gave this small group of Freedom Riders the power to affect change.  It showed the rest of the country and even large portions of the world how much the South depended on violent underpinnings to function, how dangerous life was for people of color, and how easily things could unravel.

40 people riding a bus.

It took years, much more violence, much of it at the hands of the government that supposedly existed to protect all its citizens, and the sacrifice of many more people before there were major legal advances in civil rights.  And certainly that struggle has not ended.

But these Freedom Riders, by refusing to be violent in the face of violence and by doing something as simple as riding a bus, showed the very precarious nature of the racist Jim Crow system.

How brave.  How breathtaking.

How simple an act, how large a consequence.

How incredibly awe-inspiring.

How important. How necessary.

40 people riding a bus.


One thought on “The Precarious Nature of Racism: 40 people riding a bus

  1. I haven’t had the mental wherewithal to watch this yet. We watched a piece the VA PBS did on Massive Resistance a few months ago, and I’m ashamed to admit, it was a HUGE eye opener for me. Growing up in CA, we learned about the history of racism in the US, but living in VA now…it makes all of it REAL.

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