"If we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that they can stop a nonviolent campaign by inflicting massive violence." 1961, Diane Nash, Freedom Ride organizer ***
Alice Walker, one of America's premier writers, poets and civil rights activists said this month, "The Gaza Flotilla is the Freedom Ride of this era." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VB6qZs-VJLw0). Remembering growing up in Mississippi, Walker said "We prayed for people to come to break through the Klan, the racist police, the white citizens' councils, to come and see what we suffered with every day." Walker added, "We must oppose oppression with every ounce of our blood. We must go and see what is happening and join our stories to their stories. We do this especially for the youth. It may take the rest of our lives, but we will start now."
1961 Freedom Rides
Fifty years ago on May 4, 1961, 14 young Americans started off by bus from Washington, DC headed for New Orleans. They, and those who followed in the next months, were called Freedom Riders and they intended to challenge segregation and racist policies in the southern United States, particularly in bus, train and airport terminals, after integration of these facilities had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court, but not implemented in the south.
On May 14, 1961, ten days after the first Freedom Ride began, a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen in Anniston, Alabama, attacked a bus carrying the Freedom Riders and the bus caught on fire. The riders were viciously beaten as they jumped out of the burning bus and many were hospitalized.
White Southerners Attempted to Stop Freedom Rides with Violence but Failed
Southern whites were counting on stopping further challenges to their policies of segregation with brutal treatment of the Freedom Riders. However, despite the first Freedom Ride ending with the hospitalization of many Freedom Riders, student leader Diane Nash said, "It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence." (PBS by WGBH(1996-2009). Freedom Riders. Biography)
So, the Freedom Riders did not stop! They kept on coming to the South in waves during the summer of 1961. Finally, four months later, after over 400 black and white Americans, trained in specific non-violent techniques, had been savagely beaten, assaulted, arrested and jailed by those upholding segregation, and with the jails in Mississippi overflowing with Freedom Riders, the Kennedy administration forced the integration of the interstate terminal facilities.
Violence against the Gaza Freedom Flotilla will not stop Citizen Activists
Now 50 years later, citizens from many nations are challenging the unjust and inhumane policies of another government. For a second time, they will ride in a flotilla of ships to challenge the State of Israel's unlawful and unjust naval blockade of Gaza. This will be the second year that the Gaza Freedom Flotilla will bring worldwide attention to the Israeli siege on the 1.6 million people that live in the tiny Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, which has suffered for the past five years under the brutal Israeli land and sea blockade and a horrific 22 day Israeli military attack that killed 1440 and wounded 5,000. The flotillas follow the initiative of the Free Gaza movement that in the summer of 2008 sailed ships to bring attention of the world to the blockade of Gaza.
Israeli Violence Against Unarmed Civilian Ships in the Flotilla in 2010
Last year, in the early morning of May 31, 2010, the six ships in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla One were attacked by the Israeli military. Israeli commandos killed nine unarmed civilians and wounded 50 more on the 600 passenger Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara. Passengers on the other five ships were beaten, hit with paint bullets in the face and some tasered. All were arrested and taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod where most spent several days in an Israeli prison before being deported from Israel for "entering Israel illegally."
Freedom Rides and Freedom Flotillas called "Provocative" by government authorities
On American television this month, fifty years later, the story of the incredible courage and bravery of the Freedom Riders is being retold.
I have been struck that the reasons for going on these dangerous rides in the southern part of the United States in 1961 are very similar to the reasons that passengers on the U.S. ship to Gaza, the Audacity of Hope, have for their participation in the Gaza flotilla.
Flotilla passengers, like the Freedom Riders of a half-century ago, want to bring international attention to illegal government actions and unjust treatment of human beings. Fifty years ago it was for the African-Americans in the American South and today it is for the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The Freedom Flotilla riders want to end an unjust system that deprives Palestinians of their human rights, respect and freedom of travel. The Freedom Flotilla riders, like the American Freedom Riders, are exercising their right to travel, even to areas where governments do not want them.