Freedom Riders on Obama’s Victory
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.)