A last will and testament for freedom

A Freedom Rider bus goes up in flames near Anniston, Ala., May 14, 1961, after a firebomb was tossed through a window. Passengers escaped without serious injury. (AP Photo)

A Freedom Rider bus goes up in flames near Anniston, Ala., May 14, 1961, after a firebomb was tossed through a window. Passengers escaped without serious injury. (AP Photo)

by Alex Mikulich

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At a time when there seems to be deepening conflict over the meaning of freedom, this summer, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, offers a fresh opportunity to reflect upon the sacrifices made to achieve freedom. The recently released film "Freedom Riders" teaches us about the deep yearning of African-Americans for the full human flourishing of everyone.

Take the example of Diane Nash, one of the student leaders trained in nonviolence under the tutelage of the Rev. James Lawson at Fisk University in 1959-60. Alongside John L. Lewis, among others, Nash helped lead the nonviolent sit-ins in Nashville, Tenn., in early 1960.

On May 14, 1961, Ku Klux Klan members firebombed a Freedom Rider bus outside Anniston, Ala., intending to burn to death everyone inside. Both Alabama Gov. John Patterson and Birmingham Police Chief Bull Connor declared that they would not protect the Freedom Riders from violence.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy responded by sending John Seigenthaler, his assistant, to ensure that the Freedom Riders made it safely from Birmingham to New Orleans after the firebombing.

In a historic telephone conversation on May 16, 1961, Seigenthaler, with all the power of his position, commanded Nash and other Freedom Riders to end the bus rides in order to prevent loss of life. Seigenthaler recalls the conversation with Nash like this:

"You know that spiritual -- 'like a tree standing by the water, I will not be moved'? She would not be moved. And ... soon I was shouting, 'Young woman do you understand what you are doing? ... Do you understand that you're gonna get somebody killed?' "

After a pause, Nash replied to Seigenthaler: "Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night before they left [on the bus for Birmingham]. We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence."

Seigenthaler concludes: "That is virtually a direct quote of the words that came out of that child's mouth. Here I am, an official of the United States government, representing the president and the attorney general, talking to a student at Fisk University. And she in a very quiet but strong way gave me a lecture."

It is a lecture that every citizen and person of faith should know. Nash teaches how freedom in the fullest sense is rooted in nonviolent love and responsibility. Freedom is not primarily about individual choice or the right to possess anything. More importantly, Nash and the Freedom Riders witness to a nonviolent love and responsibility concerned for the good of all others in their time and for generations to yet to come. At a time when racism rears its ugly head in every sphere of American life, it is time to remember and enact the wisdom of the Freedom Riders.

Freedom Riders risked their lives to create the condition of the possibility of true freedom: the full human flourishing of all Americans. Only when we join together as a people to ensure the full human thriving of every individual and community will we realize freedom. That is a vision and practice worth the risk and donation of our lives.

[Alex Mikulich is an anti-racist theologian and co-author of The Scandal of White Complicity in U.S. Hyper-incarceration: A Nonviolent Spirituality of White Resistance (Palgrave, 2013).]

A version of this story appeared in the July 18-31, 2014 print issue under the headline: A last will and testament for freedom.

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