“Fight those who fight me, O LORD;
attack those who are attacking me.
Take up shield and armor
and rise up to help me.
Draw the sword and bar the way against those who pursue me;
say to my soul, “I am your salvation.”
In honor of Black History Month this year, Z and I are reading through the book Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories by Ellen S. Levine. Although it’s harrowing to read what some of these brave activists endured before even being out of college (and high or middle school), I want Z to know the history and that young people can (and have) helped to change the world. From the section on the Freedom Rides in the book:
The Freedom Rides were among the most famous of the civil rights protests. The Supreme Court had ruled that buses traveling interstate could not be segregated; nor could waiting rooms and restaurants that served interstate bus passengers. Although in this instance United States law was on the side of the protesters, most southern states ignored these laws. James Farmer, head of CORE, called for a “Freedom Ride” to force southern states to obey the Court rulings. On May 4, 1961, thirteen people, seven blacks and six whites, left Washington, D.C., on buses headed for New Orleans, Louisiana. They sat wherever they wanted on the bus and planned to use all the local facilities along the way.
Just outside Anniston, Alabama, some fifty miles from Birmingham, an armed mob of segregationists fire-bombed the first bus and beat several of the fleeing passengers. The second bus was surrounded by a raging mob at the Birmingham passenger terminal. Some of the riders were beaten so badly they suffered permanent physical damage. In a report to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), an informant stated that Birmingham’s police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had agreed to give the mob fifteen minutes before he sent in the police. News coverage of the brutal attacks on the Freedom Riders horrified the American public. The attacks took place on Mother’s Day and became known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre.”
I thought about Psalm 35 (part of today’s devotional) as we read through Freedom’s Children. The Psalmist, David, cries out for God’s help, from deep down in his soul, even asking that his enemies not be given the chance to gloat at his suffering:
Do not let them say in their hearts, “Aha! just what we want!”
Do not let them say, “We have swallowed him up.”
Let all who rejoice at my ruin be ashamed and disgraced;
let those who boast against me be clothed with dismay and shame.
Sadly for the Freedom Riders, they endured far more than mocking. Yet, they persevered.
After the attacks in Anniston and Birmingham, the Freedom Riders decided to end the bus trip and fly to New Orleans instead. But a group of young people, mostly college students, believed that the Freedom Rides should continue. Diane Nash, head of the Nashville Student Movement, said that if the Freedom Riders were stopped “as a result of violence … the future of the movement was going to be cut short.” The students argued that integrated groups of passengers had to travel through the South until the system of segregation was broken. From a pool of volunteers, Nash carefully chose a new group of students to continue the rides. They all discussed the grave risk of physical danger, possibly death, that lay ahead.
The Freedom Rides continued throughout the summer of 1961. In Jackson, Mississippi, integrated groups of riders were routinely arrested for violating the local segregation laws at the bus station, and sent to prison. Finally in September the United States government issued additional regulations regarding integration at interstate bus stations, and the arrests stopped. The Freedom Riders had won.
Psalm 35 closes:
Let those who favor my cause sing out with joy and be glad;
let them say always, “Great is the LORD, who desires the prosperity of his servant.”
And my tongue shall be talking of your righteousness
and of your praise all the day long.
God is on the side of the virtuous, and cares for our state of being. Remember to stop and give praise for the the wins of life, even the tiny ones. And thank God for the brave people who fought for the rights we have today.