Sunday, December 4, 2011

Chapel Hill News: Justice and the Freedom Riders

The world premiere of Mike Wiley's "The Parchman Hour," performed by Playmakers Repertory Company, was a theatrical tour de force. The story followed the lives of 13 Freedom Riders from 1961, in the height of the civil rights movement.

Many of the riders who went to Mississippi were from the North. Most of them were young and living out their idealism: to work with others for justice and integration among a people where the ugliness of racial segregation ruled. Simply by sitting on a bus together - black and white - they had drawn the hostility of the Southern segregationist forces. Sadly, they were quickly imprisoned for three months at one of the most notorious prisons in the country: Parchman Farm.

This was a place in which those who survived for a period of time were literally the walking wounded. I expected to "ooh" and "ahh" over one more incredible set (and the television screens and burned-out bus in the back stage area did not disappoint). And the ensemble cast was outstanding (I stood with all others for the ovation at the end of the performance). The music, especially the blues group seated in the burned-out bus and the beautiful rendition of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin' " brought a lump of nostalgia to my throat.

The performance was but one venue that called me to consider my place, my role, in the marathon work of justice. At NCCU's Art Museum, there is a stirring exhibit of African-American heroes, "Let Your Motto Be Resistance," a collection of photographs from the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture. The first image that grabbed my attention was a slave whose back was scarred for life from the lashes of a whip. Sojourner Truth stares into my soul. The elegant Jessye Norman casts a hypnotic glance as I pass by.

I am always gladdened by these provocative performances and challenging exhibits that beg me to consider, "What have you done in the name of justice and liberty?" I contemplate, "What should I and we as a people do in making this a better place for us locally and globally, for our children, friends and family?"

This openness to change personally and communally and impulse to engage others in this question lasts for around a week or so. Then daily life slowly seeps back and closes that which was open before. Classes need to be taught; family responsibilities intervene; other petty issues take over. I am closed once again to the important question of our day and age: How ought we live with one another?

Ideally, in columns such as this, I support all efforts to wipe out the injustice underlying all forms of discrimination, whether it be on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationalism, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, education, ableism, religious or ageism, to name a few. Through conversation with those opposed to LGBTQ people's gaining civil rights, there may be a change of hearts and minds.

There was a 50th year reunion of the Freedom Riders, including the Rev. Reginald Green and Rep. Bob Filner, who were young men with a conscience and conviction. Finally, in November, a group of six Palestinians rode an Israeli commuter bus that links Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Jerusalem and were arrested at an Israeli check point. They were demanding the right to travel freely to Jerusalem because access to the West Bank is restricted by Israel. Their model of resistance? The Freedom Riders of the 1960s!

Like 1961, we have seen the seasons turn, from a season of apathy to a season of justice. The "Occupy" encampments here and abroad have gained the media's attention as those who are the "have-nots" in the world are fed up with the sense of economic injustice that knows no boundaries. "Arab springs" have changed dictatorial governments abroad.

To quote that oft-used phrase, "Silence gives consent." Silence is no longer the rule of the day. There is a roar that is coming, emanating from the bowels of the darkest place in this country and abroad. To quote Dylan, "Times, they are a-changin."

Contact Brett Webb-Mitchell at

No comments: