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Freedom Riders on Obama’s Victory

Paul Breines Then and Now

On Wednesday, I sent an email to several Freedom Riders asking them for their thoughts on what happened on Tuesday. I’ll be publishing their responses over the next several days. (See the subsequent entries here.)

First up is Paul Breines (above), who now teaches history at Boston College. Then a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, he was arrested at the Greyhound station in Jackson on July 21. Along with many other Freedom Riders, he was incarcerated in Parchman Prison in the Mississippi Delta on August 4, the day President-elect Barack Obama was born.

Whatever happens, this is a precious moment. A couple of months ago, I met with a 6th grade class in an all-black charter school in Cambridge, MA. I found it very intense and moving. The kids were learning interview techniques and took notes; in the week following, each of the 24 students wrote me a letter, as part of practicing writing a business letter. The teacher had them answer certain questions, like what they will remember most about our get together. At one point, I had explained that my Freedom Rider group was met at the bus station in Jackson by racist white people who screamed at us and tried to push us around. A kid asked what the people screamed, and I explained about the phrase “nigger lover,” which was new to them. One of the letters I received ended with this (uncorrected): “I will always remember that you loved us nigers.”

I’m sure that other Freedom Riders have had the same experience I have had, namely, of having people, both black and white, say things to the effect that I must feel good and proud to realize that we helped to make the Obama candidacy possible. I’m also sure that, if I hadn’t taken part in the rides, I would now be saying the same thing to people who had. A kid in the class I visited asked me if I was proud of what I did. I said that I’m so glad that I did what I did and would do it again, but that like probably all of the white Riders, I was and remain in awe of the black people who did it. The kid who asked the question said, “Well, we’re proud of you.” And another one said, “Yeah, you were helpin’ us out.” I couldn’t speak. I just got tears in my eyes, so maybe they convinced me.

I wept again, for a long time, when Barack and Michelle Obama and their girls walked to the microphone at Grant Park Tuesday night. Shortly before then, I was disgusted and furious as it became clear that Proposition 8 in California was going to be approved. But when the Obama family walked forward, there was only that. My jaw dropped and tears started to flow. I thought: “LOOK AT THEM! They are black people and they are our First Family. He is my President; he is our President. This is too fucking amazing.” I went to YouTube and watched/listened to Freedom Singer videos and Shirley and Lee, “Let the Good Times Roll.”

I thought that if the Freedom Rides helped to make this possible, then, Jesus Christ, I don’t know what to say. I wished that Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, and the four girls blown up in Birmingham were alive to see this. I thought of my childhood passion for Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, and kept sobbing, like Jesse Jackson and so many others all over the country and the world, in relief and joy, and a sense of the vulnerability of it all.

(Read the second post in this series here.)


Thank you for being one of the heroes that has made Obama’s presidency possible.

Posted by Trypz on 6 November 2008 @ 7pm

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Posted by Umf on 6 November 2008 @ 8pm

thank you. for then and for now.

and we shall continue to overcome.

Posted by kathleen fallon on 6 November 2008 @ 9pm

I cried when I read your reflection of history and the anecdotes from your recent classroom experience. Thank you for sharing your story for it needs to be heard.

I went to canvass for Obama in Jackson, MS with a bunch of law students and the experience still resonates with me. But we truly wouldn’t have this moment in history if not for your courageous actions at that fateful time.

Posted by Rekha on 7 November 2008 @ 6am

Thank you for your courageous example to us all.

Posted by Chuck Murphy on 7 November 2008 @ 6am


[That’s a link to Shirley & Lee “Let the Good Times Roll.” — ed.]

Posted by R. Sullivan on 7 November 2008 @ 10am

Paul: My wife and I met you in New York at the Breach of Peace party and were impressed by your humility, courage, and intellect. Your post on this website is very much in keeping with the person we encountered. It is an honor to have met you.

In the wake of Obama’s extraordinary electoral victory, renewing our democracy and our hopes, I want to thank you and all the freedom riders once again for the service you all performed. Your actions have helped usher in a better world. You put yourselves at risk, not only on behalf of the unjustly disenfranchised, but also on behalf of the indifferent and the hateful. The children and grandchildren of those who screamed at you inherit a better world (and a better spirit) today because of the courage of all civil rights workers.

Thank you.

Posted by Jeffrey Zeldman on 10 November 2008 @ 1pm

This made me weep with joy. May you be remembered always for what you did. There are no braver Americans than those who would stand up for those who don’t enjoy the freedoms and liberties that we so often take for granted.

Posted by Jeff Small on 10 November 2008 @ 1pm

I was also angry at the defeat of Prop. 8 in CA. And kept crying especially when the camera panned on Jesse Jackson.

The courage and persistence of so many have created the road. I hope courage and persistence is awakened in the many more needed to widen the path, and open new ones.

Posted by Aurelio M. Montemayor on 10 November 2008 @ 1pm

Thanks! Nice post.

Posted by ErvinTW on 10 November 2008 @ 11pm

[…] Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders is an interesting collection of a then-and-now portraiture tied to the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the Freedom Rides in the United […]

Posted by Reframing The Freedom Riders. | patrick on 25 May 2010 @ 1am

I am doing a research video on the civil rights movement as a project for an education class. As a historian I am so proud of what you did. As an Army Brat who never knew there was a difference in skin color I wept reading your statement. As a now southerner, who lives outside of Birmingham, I stand up and applaud you. You and the other riders are true heroes. Just like our soldiers and the firemen from 9/11. Again THANK YOU!!!!

Posted by Charity Miller on 7 April 2012 @ 6pm

[…] Breach of Peace: Freedom Riders on Obamaís Victory […]

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