Like so many others, my wife, Helen, and I guarded our optimism during the Obama campaign in fear of another stolen election, or the impact of the “Bradley effect,” an “October surprise” or worse. On election night, we were at a dinner shared with families of about 20 fraternity brothers. Immediately after the announcement that Barack Obama was our new president-elect, we joined hands in a circle and offered a prayer for his safety. Then my cell phone began to ring with calls from fellow Freedom Riders, relatives and friends, some of them still shocked or sobbing with disbelief, and all of them declaring this was the most incredible moment of their lives. Especially rewarding were calls from our three sons — all grown now — who wanted to share this moment with us and to thank us for taking part in the fight against racism in America.
On the morning after the election, I tried in vain to follow my schedule at Loyola Marymount University. I was supposed to lecture on U.S. fiscal policy, but several of my students had seen my mug shot photo in Eric Etheridge’s brilliant photographic book “Breach of Peace.” They insisted on hearing about the Freedom Rides and the impact of that venture’s success on the occasion of the nation’s first black president-elect. There was no denying that this was a classic teachable moment.
I learned, from several previous inquiries of this kind, to keep a copy of “Breach of Peace” in my book bag, and I circulated it among the students. I informed them that I was not much older then than they are now when I decided that I had to do more than organize picket lines in sympathy with the student sit-ins and other civil rights activities in the South during the ’60s. The Freedom Rides were the first real opportunity to do more than simply talk about the inequity and injustice of racial discrimination and segregation and their affect on Americans of all races. It was a chance to join the fray on the front lines.
My main disappointment over the years has been that far fewer people joined the Freedom Rides than I predicted. I was certain then that the call by civil rights leaders to “fill the jails” in Jackson, Miss., would be answered by thousands and supported by millions. There was little doubt in my mind that we were part of a growing spirit in America that seemed capable of vanquishing the beasts of racism, segregation and discrimination. But a wave of assassinations — Medgar Evers, John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X — effectively killed that spirit.
The election of Barack Obama is the first time I have felt a reawakening of that spirit. But it will grow to its full potential only if we join him on the “front lines,” when he calls for the inevitable sacrifices that will be needed to turn our nation back around. He will need sufficient time to implement policies designed to reverse the direction chosen by previous administrations. We can only hope that he acts soon … before the spirit dies again.
This article was first published on www.breachofpeace.com as one of a series of responses by Freedom Riders to the U.S. presidential election in November 2008. The article was reprinted with permission in the spring 2009 edition of Vistas magazine, a publication which was the predecessor to LMU Magazine.