Values, Goals of Freedom Riders Still Apply Today

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 freedomridepar­tic­i­pate 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.

Manpreet Teji
For­mer SAALT Staff Mem­ber
Law Stu­dent, John Mar­shall Law School