I'm not new to talking, sharing ideas, or stating my opinion, especially stating my opinion! After all, I taught elementary school for 30 years! However, my audience has typically been smaller,just family, the classroom, or just talking to myself!

My blog has two goals: be an outlet for sharing thoughts on writing children's books and the path to publication (got my fingers crossed that I'll get there) and a place to chronicle my journey of losing my sight. Sometimes I imagine these two paths will overlap .

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Write From the Soul

                 Freedom Riders 50th Anniversary

I'm sitting here writing with a lump in my throat after watching Oprah's salute to the Freedom Riders on this the 50th anniversary of their momentous journey. There were over 160 participants from the Ride on her program, including Congressman John Lewis.

Many of you learned about the Civil Rights Movement in school; as an elementary school teacher, I taught aspects of this important time in our history to my students. I did not, however, learn about it in school because I was living through that time. I was 9 years old in 1961 and lived in the north. Although  Jim Crow laws were not practiced in my state, the events going on in our country were not mentioned either.

I lived in Detroit among many races and ethnicities and we didn't give it much thought. Kids were kids and as long as someone said they were your friend, you were bonded together. Don't get me wrong, I know prejudice existed. I remember at age 13 during my Bat Mitzvah party, some of the adult guests asked about my two Black friends  and assumed they must be the children of our housekeeper who had also been invited.
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The stories shared on Oprah were incredible and horrifying and inspiring. One of the Freedom Ride buses was attacked in Alabama. Members of the KKK broke out the windows and slashed the tires. They yelled horrible things to the riders and threatened to kill them. The driver managed to drive away from them only to discover the slashed tires. He locked the door to the bus, and went to find help. Meanwhile, the crowd surrounded the bus again and a fire bomb was tossed inside. Someone was heard to say, "Let's burn those [the N word] alive." One rider told Oprah that she "would rather be dead than not have my freedom." Another rider, who was 19 at the time said " I decided to commit suicide on that bus rather than allow them to take my dignity."

As the riders tried to get off the bus, the crowd outside held the door shut. The riders were only saved because the gas tank exploded and the crowd dispersed. The freedom riders stumbled out, gasping for air, gagging from the smoke. Up came a 12 year white girl with a wet towel and water. She picked out a person, washed her face and gave her a glass of water. Then she moved on to another person and another. Her family owned the grocery store sitting beside the burning bus. She had heard someone crying out for water and she knew, even as a 7th grader, she must help them. Imagine the incredible inner strength to do that.

Later, the KKK met to decide what to do about little Janie Forsyth who had helped out "those people." They decided she was too young to understand what she had done and wasn't smart enough to know better. Had she been in her upper teens or 20s, like many of the freedom riders, she surely would have been harmed or killed.

Another guest on Oprah's program was a man named Elwin Wilson who had been the man that beat up Congressman John Lewis in a South Carolina bus station. He explained that a policeman came and asked John Lewis if he wanted to press charges. John Lewis said "No, we aren't here to cause trouble. We've come out of love for people."  Mr. Wilson said, with a lump in his throat, that he never forgot that line and it helped to eventually transform him.

In 2009, Mr. Wilson went to John Lewis's office, told him he had been the man who beat him , apologized, and asked for his forgiveness. They hugged and shed tears. It was humbling to see the two men sitting together on the stage.

These stories, and more, will be highlighted in a PBS special on May 16th called "Freedom Riders." I hope all of you will mark your calendars or planners, put a sticky note on the refrigerator or computer monitor and watch this eye-opening and inspiring program. Despite the horror of the events, I do believe it is inspiring to see a group of young people, who risked life and limb, to try to correct a wrong in our country. They demonstrate that even a small group of individuals, dedicated to a cause or belief, can make a major contribution in changing our society.

It left me asking myself- and perhaps you as well-  Do I believe in something so strongly that I would be willing to give up my life for it?


  1. Wow, this is a powerful post, Gail. I know that I would give up my life in a second for my children. I've never asked myself if there was something beyond that. A very humbling question indeed.

  2. Vicky:
    Yes, the program was extremely moving to me and I honestly can say I've never asked myself that question before. I, too, would do anything for my family, including giving my life if necessary, although I'd prefer to just give a kidney! :-)

  3. I enjoyed your post Gail but you know I've always believed that cruel behavior of the Alabama people was from poor people with fears that change would make it harder on them and their family... today it is from the hate that grew from both sides during that time. God makes all humans equal but it is the choices we make and the actions we do that divides us not color or religion or education or money None of these things will be questioned on judgement day, only our hearts.