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On the Side of the Angels

William Leons, Freedom Rider

This is the fifth in a series of posts by Freedom Riders in response to Barack Obama’s victory (see the other entries here.)

William Leons was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1935, and grew up there. His parents were both involved in the Resistance during World War II, and both were arrested and sent to the camps, his father in 1942 (to Mauthausen) and his mother in 1943 (to Vught). Only his mother survived. Together they immigrated to United States in 1949, living in Hoboken, NJ.

In 1961, Leons was a graduate student at UCLA when he joined the Rides. Since 1975 he has taught anthropology at the University of Toldeo, in Ohio.

I doubt any of the men and women active in the Civil Rights struggle in the 1960’s thought then that this day would ever come. Since those days much has changed — legislation fostering greater access for many to the ballot box, education and employment. Though the changes were too few and too slow, as we look back no one can say that there has not been improvements in the lives of millions.

That much still needs to be done goes almost without saying. Look at the high levels of high-school drop outs, mortality rates, unemployment rates and the cost of higher education, itself a silent discrimination based on race and social class. Not one state-supported university ranks in the top ten (Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Chicago) and these remain important stepping stones for success in the academic world and professions.

A heavy toll has been paid by those who suffered in silence and those who were active participants in the struggle — shriveled lives for many and death on the part of the movements martyrs, whose names we all know and many quietly recalled on the glorious day of November 4, 2008. Little girls and young men and women and beloved leaders who died for the cause, who never should have died for what was their birthright, to be free men and women in this land founded upon freedom.

My wife is a county social worker and she had to ask a colleague, an African-American man, on November 5, why so many white women in their office were wearing black. He answered that they were mourning Obama’s victory. I see hope in the young people, many of whom may be said to be color-blind. My students (largely white) with rare exceptions voted for Obama. Such voters may have made the difference between winning and losing Ohio. I see black and white students often walking together and chatting with each other and studying together, all quite different from 20, 30 or 40 years ago and promises well for the future.

In the weeks before November 4, I began to believe that Obama was going to be the next president and was afraid that the poll numbers might be wrong or shenanigans by the opposition might rob us all. When late that evening I saw the results on my TV I realized we were participants in a great historical event and I became giddy with happiness. I am not a flag waiver, and like Michelle Obama don’t often feel proud of my country, but that day I did feel proud and put out the flag and flew it for several days. It won’t fly again until July 4th, 2009, the one day I always fly the flag.

This victory is sweet and we all have a right to be proud because it is a long overdue promise that has been fulfilled. Now let us hope and fight for all the other problems that exist be eradicated in the years to come. Change is always slow but we are on the side of the angels. Our dreams will be fulfilled and we will be a beacon of hope once again for people everywhere.

1 Comment

Thanks for these great articles on such wonderful human beings. These people were so strong for what they did. Thank you. We will never forget. We should all be so human.

Posted by Seeds of Life on 1 October 2009 @ 5pm