Our VoiceImmigration

Inspirational Freedom Riders Resonate in Current Struggles for Justice


Charlotte Williams • May 12, 2011

May, 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, a critical mobilizing campaign of the civil rights movement of this country.  As buses rolled from all points across the country headed either from North to South or South to deeper south, people had a basic goal – change.  Their actions came with tremendous costs, including life-threatening dangers as they went to stand in solidarity with an oppressed people. They knew the time was “now.”

Rep Bob Filner (D- CA), at the time a student at Cornell University and the Rev. Reginald Green, a student from Virginia Union University, recall wanting to address the moral dilemma that the segregated South presented.  They were compelled to join the first small group of Freedom Riders that left Washington D.C. in 1961 and hoped to rid the south of the plague of bigoted Jim Crow laws.   Some things changed, and others were merely reshaped in whatever form became necessary to further discrimination and bigotry.

As documented in the 2010 release of The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, author Michelle Alexander calls for a renewed energy in addressing the findings in her analysis of the Jim Crow of old.   She examines the historical foundation of Jim Crow and presents an uncompromising analysis of the decades of carnage perpetrated by the permeation of structural racism and civil rights violations against black and brown people within the Prison Industrial Complex in America.  So it didn’t change - it got worse.

The actions taken fifty years ago by Freedom Riders continue to inspire today’s activists as they too fight injustice, especially around issues of immigration.  Their aggressive agenda confronts the current systematic dismantling of civil and human rights through large-scale demonstrations, telephone calls, letter writing, emails and text messaging.

In recent days, diligent organizers in places like Florida, New York and Illinois, along with their networks across the country, have achieved a measure of success.

In Florida, with legislative bills in the House and Senate, one of the bills “died” in the state’s legislature. These bills drew staunch opposition from a powerful and wide-ranging set of interests, from big business to religious groups to immigration advocates. Tremendous effort went into this campaign to have legislators “cease and desist” the continued criminalization of immigrants and the devastating impact the Arizona-style law would have had on their communities.

In New York, food workers banded together in a strategy reminiscent of a “full court press” for a victory in which 45 supermarket and grocery store locations have pulled Sonny & Joe’s hummus off the shelves amid the heated dispute over Flaum’s lack of respect for immigrant workers.

In Illinois, years of national support and local efforts of activists, organizers and politicians resulted in a double whammy as Illinois became the first state to notify the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday that it would be banning Secure Communities across the state. The Illinois Senate also advanced the state’s DREAM Act, which would provide more educational opportunities and aid to the state’s residents, regardless of their immigration status.

The Freedom Riders are an important part of our history and organizing efforts today, as people from every walk of life continue to be relentless in seeking real change in the midst of institutionalized injustices.  The goal, however, must always be real change.

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