In 1961 Mother’s Day in the United States fell on May 14th. Two groups of civil rights campaigners were half way through the second week of their bus journeys south from Washington, designed to test a Supreme Court decision of the previous year that declared the segregation of inter-state transportation unconstitutional.
With the black and white passengers deliberately sitting together, and ignoring the signs that directed them to different facilities at rest stops, they expected to face suspicion and hostility, but apart from an ugly incident in Rock Hill, South Carolina, they had not run into any serious trouble. But in Alabama, things suddenly turned nasty.
As it left Anniston, the Greyhound bus was pursued by a convoy of angry whites who, when it pulled over for a flat tyre, attacked the vehicle, set it ablaze, and assaulted passengers as they emerged from the smoke. The Trailways bus, carrying the second group, arrived later and, after on-board segregation was forcibly established, were allowed to continue to Birmingham, where many of the passengers were brutally set upon by members of a large crowd which was waiting for them.
Shaken and injured the campaigners were nevertheless determined to continue to Montgomery the next day. But when the Alabama authorities refused to guarantee their safety, the riders reluctantly agreed to complete their journey to New Orleans by plane. Thus ended the first Freedom Ride.
When I wrote a piece recently on two writers – John Lewis and Gary Younge – who had revisited the sites of some of the most momentous scenes of that first ride, in what I argued were politicized variants of the popular ‘footsteps’ genre of travel writing, I looked for an appropriate image to illustrate it, and found this:
Historic marker at 4th Avenue N and 19th St N, Birmingham, Alabama: photo by kschlot1
The marker was erected in 1995, close to the site of the old Trailways bus terminal (now occupied, somewhat inevitably, by a bank). The site of the bus burning in Anniston was memorialized in 2007, although both were privately funded: evidence perhaps of Alabama’s official reluctance to come to terms with parts of its past it would prefer to forget.
But what I didn’t immediately notice about the plaque is how inaccurate and misleading it is. That it refers to the Greyhound, rather than Trailways, terminal is perhaps of no great consequence, although it must surely puzzle those passers-by who know that the Greyhound terminal is several blocks north and must wonder why the marker is placed here and not there.
The use of the word ‘youth’, though, demands a little more attention. Not only is it simply misleading to imply that the riders were all young people – five of the fifteen riders who arrived in Birmingham that day were over 40 (indeed three of them were over 50) – it’s a very curious choice when applying it to a very specific group of individuals, for it is neither a plural nor a collective noun. It is as if in the struggle to find a wording that everyone would find acceptable, no one knew what to call them.
The ‘klansmen’ who attacked them have a certain familiarity, as do the ‘police’ who stood by and watched, and yet – perhaps to compensate for this reckless admission of official collusion – the riders themselves become a strangely disembodied, abstract entity, the personification of one of the stages of life. It makes it easier for us to feel the kind of sympathy that is born of condescension rather than solidarity; it marks them as immature, easily swayed by manipulative others (the acronym CORE – surely opaque to many who read the notice – serving perfectly in this respect).
Above all, it codes them as feminine in contrast to those hyper-masculine thugs who participated in their humiliation. Or it would, if it weren’t for that final clause that suddenly and unexpectedly has them ‘standing their ground’ – a phrase that has circulated with particular speed these last few weeks, but which for a century or more has conjured up the image of an armed white patriarch defending his private property against intruders. Here, in a brilliant twist, it is being used to honour non-violent protesters (black, white, male, female) seeking to assert their right to occupy public spaces together.
Evidently, there is more than one way to stand your ground.