Civil Rights: Then and Now
United Methodist students had a chance to hear personal perspectives from two men who fought for civil rights in the U.S. 50 years ago and have a message which remains important today.
NARRATOR: This United Methodist audio feature explains how some United Methodist students listened to stories from 50 years ago about the segregated U.S. South, and connected those lessons to current-day civil rights struggles.
GROUP SINGING: Ain't gonna let no jailhouse turn me around, turn me around, turn me around. Ain't gonna let no jailhouse turn me around; I'm gonna keep on walkin', keep on talkin', marching up to freedom land.
VO: A group of students from different countries has learned one thing they sadly have in common: Racial discrimination knows no boundaries. In July in Washington, D.C., a joint meeting of both International and National Associations of schools related to The United Methodist Church brought together faculty and students from Methodist schools in 25 different countries to focus on how to build better leaders for the future. The students attended a separate program on social justice and learned about civil rights struggles across the globe.
One of the highlights was a presentation by two key figures of the U.S. civil rights movement. Ernest "Rip" Patton Jr. was part of the 1960 lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville, Tenn., and later made the May 1961 Greyhound Freedom Ride to Jackson, Mississippi. John Seigenthaler was a special assistant of the Kennedy administration, dispatched to the South to serve as intermediary between the Freedom Riders, the federal government and local segregationist officials.
Seigenthaler described racial segregation in his hometown of Nashville, which mirrored the segregation laws in effect throughout the South at the time.
JS: Typical Southern city. Typical in the sense that, there, as in any other city in the South, if you were an African American, there were simply places you could not go if you needed to go or wished to go. Hospitals, hotels, restaurants, city parks, water fountains ... the bathroom.
VO: But Seigenthaler's experience was one of a spectator. Growing up in a privileged white household, he couldn't relate or understand the hardships that confronted African Americans, and found himself blind to the injustices forced upon them.
JS: I cannot imagine in my own mind how many times I sat on a trolley car as a child or a bus, and watched African American women, late in the afternoon board that public conveyance, pay her fare as I had paid my fare. I sat there on that bus, and they struggled to the rear of the bus, where not only the ordinances and the statutes and the Supreme Court said they had to go. There were signs offending signs there that told you where they had to go: to the back. And so they would struggle to the back, and I sat there. And you can't imagine it; I never saw them. I never saw the indignity or the indecency or the corruption of the system that forced them to do that.
VO: By the early 1960s, the U.S. civil rights movement was gaining strength, and African Americans were challenging laws that said they weren't worthy of drinking from the same water fountain as whites, or eating at the same restaurants. In February of 1960, more than 100 African-American students from Nashville colleges took seats at three downtown lunch counters and did the unthinkable: They asked for food. They knew they wouldn't be served, and might even be assaulted or arrested. Furthermore, they were under orders not to fight back. Civil rights leaders espoused the nonviolent protest practices of famed Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi. Disturbing film of the event shows the protesters sitting stoicly as taunts, and even fists, rained down upon them.
JS: Suddenly in these three little chain Five & Dime stores and in three department stores, the lunch counters are filled with these students sitting there. They bring their books with them to study; they know they're not going to get served. They are treated rudely, they are refused, they're turned away, they're told to leave. They won't leave. The police come in. "This is private property. You've been ordered off." They're still reading their lessons. The police arrest them and take them to jail. Another group, waiting outside, comes in and takes over, and sits.
VO: But, again, while Seigenthaler had a front-row seat to the sit-ins, he was not an active participant. That's where "Rip" Patton picks up the story. Patton was a student at Tennessee State University at the time and was part of the group that conducted the sit-ins.
RP: Let's say this front row represented 20 students sitting at a lunch counter. When they were arrested, taken out the front door and put in the paddy wagon to go to jail, that second row would come in the back door and take their seats. And we'd have mass arrests.
VO: As the movement gained steam, the protests became more widespread. The following year, they move from lunch counters to Greyhound buses, with hundreds of Freedom Riders boarding buses headed south to challenge segregation laws on interstate transit. They are met with increasing violence, and the focal point of the movement becomes Jackson, Mississippi, where the goal was to flood the city's jails.
Many of them, including Patton, wound up in the notorious Parchman State Prison Farm, where their treatment was deplorable. Parchman was a cinderblock building with no shade. Guards would turn on the heat during the day, and the air conditioning at night. They'd put laxatives in the food, then turn off the water so the prisoners couldn't flush the toilet.
Despite their abhorrent conditions, the Freedom Riders fought back by singing, taking spirituals and changing the words to fit the movement. It was a simple act of defiance, and proved quite effective.
RP: What happens when we sing is that ... if someone is trying to do something to you, physically or mentally, and you can sing something within your inside, in your heart. I don't have to hear you but you know that you're singing or humming a little song; it gives you relief. And they don't understand that.
VO: Even though they describe events 50 years in the past, the Freedom Riders' story made the students see parallels to current-day civil rights struggles. For Jorge Granados, a 24-year-old student at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, the similarities are obvious.
JG: I think that were a lot of similarities with our specific struggles as Latinos in the United States. Talking about discrimination when it comes to immigration issues, and just race issues in general.
VO: Cesar Linares, an 18-year-old preparing to attend Texas Wesleyan in the fall, drew inspiration from the presentation as well.
CL: I had actually taken a course on sociology, and I had learned about the Freedom Riders through that. Actually seeing him in person and hearing his story personally, it was different than just seeing it through a documentary. And it inspires me because of the issues that are going on in the Latino community, and to look at them as role models and see what they did back then. It lets me know that there is hope for change for the injustices that are going on right now.
JG: I'm gonna be honest: I was kind of on the verge of tears. Wow, this is brotherly love right here. It was a very, very beautiful thing.
NARRATOR: This audio feature was produced by Joey Butler in 2011 and brought to you by United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.
For more information, contact United Methodist Communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-742-5470.
Posted: February 22, 2013