Over the past two years, I have steeped myself in understanding the civil rights context for South Asian, Sikh, Muslim and Arab American communities as a Program Associate at SAALT. My recent experience to join the original Freedom Riders from Freedom Summer on a bus ride from DC to Richmond helped me to realize how connected people of color are in terms of their experiences, hopes and dreams for the future.
On July 2, 2014, I received an opportunity to participate in the 50th Anniversary commemorating the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act with the office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education. The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public as well as promoting equality in voting. I joined 48 other student leaders across the country, along with many original Freedom Riders from Freedom Summer to the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia. The Freedom Rides brought together civil rights activists who rode interstate buses from DC into the segregated South in 1961 to challenge the non-enforcement of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions that ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. During the journey from DC to Richmond last week, I explored history firsthand from leaders who paved the way for all of us.
This experience allowed me to reflect on the difference the Freedom Riders made for Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities as these communities are part of this long civil rights history. They were the same age as I when they left their homes and Universities and signed wills before embarking on a journey knowing they were risking their lives. As a Sikh American, the 1964 Civil Rights Act is of tremendous significance as it addressed religious discrimination. Prior to 1964, employers could discriminate based on the applicant’s religion and for Sikhs, turbans or long beards represent articles of faith. While today the law stands that racial discrimination is in violation of the Civil Rights Act, the backlash our communities face are still prevalent including at workplaces and schools. The Freedom Riders expressed that at the time that there was a sense of urgency for the climate to be changed. I think today the climate is thirsty for change again as America is becoming more diverse and there is a need for a society that respects people of various backgrounds and faiths.
The morning send-off was held at the Department of Education where Freedom Rider Hank Thomas spoke about his experience joining the movement. He reflected on his time serving in Vietnam and knowing that even if he came back with a Medal of Honor, he would not be able to sit in the front of the bus. Hank spoke on behalf of African American soldiers back then as he explained that, “We loved a country that did not love us.” Listening to his words, I found myself already strategizing with other student leaders on how to continue this fight that these leaders fought before us as how we could organize to make sure injustices were prevented for the future generation.
During the ride on the way to Richmond, I was seated next to Freedom Rider Rev. Reginald Green. When he was a student at Virginia Union University, Rev. Green heard about the Freedom Rides and decided to join. He did not tell his parents and was arrested and jailed in Mississippi. Rev. Green reflected on his reasons for joining the Freedom Rides and noted that it was time for the climate of our nation to change. Many of the Freedom Riders were in college and paused their own education to take part in activities that would ensure equal education for everyone one day. We arrived at the Virginia State Capitol where the Freedom Riders were welcomed by Governor Terry McAuliffe. He reflected on the great strides the Freedom Riders made and how, “They stood up when others failed to do so.” The Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights at the Department of Education, Catherine Lhamon, discussed the modern day cases her office faces and how she believes, “No student should have to choose between getting an education and being treated with dignity.” The reality is that bias based bullying and discrimination still happens in the classrooms whether it’s race, religion, sexual orientation or national origin. After 9/11, incidents of bias based bullying heightened for the South Asian communities and racial and religious profiling as a whole increased towards the community. While we commemorate the work that has already been done for by the Department of the Education to make sure our schools are safe, we need to make sure our classrooms allow for students to attend safely and with dignity.
Throughout this experience, it was difficult to imagine the hardships the Freedom Riders went through to fight for civil rights. Their tires were popped and the windows were broken but they continued to ride. They did not want to sit at the back of the bus, go to only a few restaurants, use separate bathrooms or not be able to vote. The progress that they made to move away from racial segregation is remarkable. They inspired me along with 48 other students to join the movement and make sure that during the next 50 years, we are actively engaged in the struggle for racial justice.
Former SAALT Staff Member
Law Student, John Marshall Law School