Freedom Riders and Ferguson

On Saturday night Emily and I watched a PBS documentary on the Civil Rights Freedom Riders. I had a vague knowledge of the history (Emily had quite a bit more) but not many of the details. It really is an inspiring story on many fronts.

Beyond general inspiration, though, I couldn’t help but draw a lot of parallels with the events in Ferguson.

Naive Optimism and Hopeful Realism

The rides began with a naive optimism. Even the riders, interviewed for the documentary, admitted how incredibly clueless they were about the extent of racism in the Deep South. They were from the North and hadn’t fully experienced Jim Crow laws themselves. They were trained in nonviolent resistance, but they talked now about how they mostly laughed it off and didn’t think anything that bad was really going to happen to them.

Also Saturday, we had a leadership day for the Waterloo Meeting House. One of the things we talked about was how we tend to move through different stages when wrestling with a problem. The first stage: naive optimism.

The next stage on the list was “informed pessimism” which clearly hit the first group of Freedom Riders. After being beaten along with other passengers while cops watched, they wanted to go on but no bus driver would continue. They then took up an offer from the federal government to go home safely.

Fortunately, the next stage kicked in for a group of students at Fisk University: hopeful realism. They saw that this prior group had started something that needed to be finished. They were not naive, though. They knew that people would die. They knew that people would be beaten. They knew that they would spend time in jail. They even commented that they all prepared their wills before they left, knowing there was a good chance they wouldn’t be back.

From what I’ve seen, there is a lot of hopeful realism about Ferguson right now. Nobody really thinks it will be easy. I’m sure some did when they first took off for a peaceful protest. After all, why would it really be that radical to suggest that somebody shooting an unarmed teen 6 times while his hands were up in surrender, with multiple witnesses and an autopsy to back that up, should be arrested and tried instead of still being paid? But unfortunately, that is radical, and now many moved on to a hopeful realism (myself included). We must continue to pray and work for this to move forward toward completion as the Riders did.


Perhaps the most interesting part of the documentary for me were the interviews of important white people in power and how they responded. They featured somebody involved in Kennedy’s administration as well as the Governor of Alabama. The trend between them both was that their priority was maintaining a surface peace, the status quo. They more or less agreed with the Freedom Riders’ cause. The Kennedy administration was just busy dealing with the USSR and saw Civil Rights as a distraction. The Governor was actually terrified of his own people, particularly the very vocal and violent segregationist police chief in Montgomery. He even sheepishly admitted to having his secretary lie to the President to delay stepping in.

Government response beyond the local level has been similar with Ferguson. The Governor has stayed out of it as much as he can. Obama’s public address on the matter was a side note along with concerns about ISIS, although, like Kennedy, he did send a representative to try to regain that surface peace on the federal government’s behalf. It still seems like it is just a pesky distraction to those in power.


The goal of the police was similar to that of the government, although they seemed to be much more blatantly opposed to integration rather than simply afraid that the cost was too high. Montgomery police stood around watching the mob beat the Freedom Riders almost to death. They even made a deal with a KKK that they would have a set amount of time to do their damage before police would do their jobs. Jackson police after that struck a deal with the federal government that protected the Riders from mob violence by throwing them in the worst jail they could find, giving them terrible manual labour.

The same has held true in Ferguson. There has been serious police brutality against peaceful protesters. After media attention became too powerful, they shifted to simply arresting them and cracking down on every law possible while limiting rights to the bare minimum (well, every law except for the original murder). Last I saw was a couple of weeks ago when they had arrested over 150 people, most of them peaceful protesters. Plus like the Montgomery police, when others got violent, the police stood out of the way while it was the nonviolent protesters did the hard work protecting stores and houses in the city.

The Media

When the original Riders were beaten in Montgomery, one of the Riders likely would have been killed if a flash bulb from a camera hadn’t gone off. Suddenly the mob realized they were caught in the act and turned against the media instead, destroying the film as best they could – that particular photo still got out and was a huge part of bringing more people to the cause.

In Ferguson at first, it seemed almost like the police didn’t realize how much their brutality was being documented all over Twitter and elsewhere. Soon they did and they promptly began to confiscate phones, stopped wearing their name badges so they couldn’t be identified, arrested media without cause, and more, all of which was illegal.

The media has that kind of power. It’s true that much of the time the media is helping out the oppressors, but there are also many stories like some of the early responders to Ferguson and whoever took that photo of the mob in action in Montgomery. Plus in the social media age, all kinds of information was leaking out much faster than the mainstream media could say it. When almost everyone has the ability to be the media, they can do some powerful work getting their message out, assuming people will listen to them.


The key to the success of the Freedom Riders was their nonviolent strategy. They did not fight back, even when close to death. The most powerful thing to me was when they were being sent in huge numbers to prison. They continued to sing. The guards would take away their mattresses, and they would sing that they could take away their mattress but they couldn’t take away their freedom. The guards would take away their toothbrushes, and they would sing about that. It gives new meaning to the New Testament stories for me about Paul and others singing in jail. It wasn’t just about being content in all circumstances. It also is a radical statement that no matter what oppressors did to them, they cannot take away their fundamental human worth.

The other thing that happened in that prison is that it became a school for nonviolent activism. Suddenly there were hundreds of people from all over the nation with the same cause who could communicate with each other. When previously there were many different groups using similar but different strategies, now they could work together. This reached the critical mass necessary to turn one little initiative by one civil rights group into a huge movement for desegregation.

Some have gotten violent in Ferguson. Others started out nonviolent but didn’t know how to respond to the continued police brutality so ultimately gave in to violence, but those numbers are small. What Ferguson is lacking so far, as far as I know, is the deliberate and organized training in nonviolent action. The Freedom Riders were trained first and prepared for what they would experience. Ferguson residents were thrown in headfirst and had to learn some of the tactics after the fact, which makes their predominately nonviolent reaction all the more impressive.

The biggest message is simply that nonviolent activism does work, better than violent activism. We definitely should not be passive, but it is far more powerful to expose the evil of violent oppression through demonstrating something better that affirms the humanity of all involved than it is to fight fire with fire.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.