Freedom Rides, and Freedom Riders, then and now

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My husband and I have a long-running inside joke. Whenever we’re going through a difficult time with our work or family (such as when the twins were born and we were feeding them around-the-clock or when he was trying to rip out and replace our bathroom during 4 weeks of evenings and weekends), we say that “at least it’s not the Freedom Rides!”

We’re referring to my part of the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides in 2003, a really amazing nationwide mobilization of immigrants and their allies, organized labor, religious communities, and civil rights groups. Basically, buses of immigrants and representatives of these different constituencies left several cities around the country, stopping in different communities to hold solidarity events, and ultimately convening first in Washington, DC and then in New York City. As you can imagine, the logistics alone were daunting–security, lodging, food, media–but the real challenges were in bringing these sometimes disparate interests together towards this common goal. First we had to even learn how to talk to each other, then we had to learn to respect each others’ journeys, then we had to understand that we share a common fate. And then we had to present a unified message to our nation. And we had about 9 weeks, from the time that the routes were finalized to the time that the buses pulled up in front of Primitivo Garcia Elementary School, to pull it off.

I was the lead organizer for the Kansas City stop of the IWFR, which meant not only organizing a coalition here to raise money and put on an event but also representing our area at the national meetings on message and strategy. It was truly an amazing coming together of people, many of whom I met then for the first time and still consider friends, and everyone gave so much. Still, I worked almost nonstop in August and September that year, literally collapsing in bed the Sunday night after the buses left and sleeping until the following afternoon.

I thought a lot about those months, and that Freedom Ride experience last fall when I read the book we had sneakers they had guns, a first-person account of the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. Some of the players, remarkably, were the same: I’ll never forget the experience of having the Reverend James Lawson, a giant of the civil rights movement, speak to the first IWFR meeting I attended. His message was that, whether you came on the Mayflower or just crossed the Rio Grande, we’re all in the same ship now. He is a magnificent speaker, and I got chills. And some of the lessons showed parallels: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee needed the arrival of white students from the North to get the attention that they deserved for their battle against this totally closed, violent, racist order; similarly, we talked openly about how it was precisely the fact that African-Americans, labor leaders, mainline and evangelical faith communities, and others seen as ‘outside’ the immigrant community were a part of this effort that diffused some of the anti-immigrant animosity. They wrestled with that internally, and whether it eroded the ownership of the black leaders who had been laboring in the South for years; we struggled, too, with divisions between activists in different parts of the country and from different traditions. Some members of Congress lent their support for the 1964 Freedom Schools; we were somewhat astounded to receive a completely, beautifully supportive letter from Senator Sam Brownback. Both efforts used songs and imagery to imbue a sense of the sacred in the movement, and both had heroes, albeit on a different scale: the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, and the busload of immigrant freedom riders who sang “We Shall Overcome” when detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement near the U.S./Mexico border.

And, yet, there were many, dramatic, poignant differences, foremost that the freedom rides of which I had the honor to be a part didn’t really, at least not directly, spark a nationwide movement for immigrant rights. This was evident in many ways: most (but not all) of the people working on the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride were there in their professional capacities, whereas those in Mississippi were there as citizen activists, conscientious objectors to an overtly racist system. The author tells of a joyous reunion 40 years later; when one of my fellow IWFR activists and I tried to organize a reunion of sorts the following year, people had kind of moved on, and no one showed up. Some of the activists he interviews point to the distinction between an organizing and protest movement–they focused much more on organizing, and, as a result, built a movement; ours was more of a mobilization, so we made a splash. Perhaps most dramatically, our trainings included discussion of what to do if detained by ICE; they had safety trainings that showed how to curl up so that those beating you couldn’t get at your head or abdomen.

Liz Fusco, one of the teachers in the Freedom Schools who also worked registering African Americans to vote, said at the end of the book, “…SNCC was saying that the success of the movement wouldn’t be measured by the numbers of people who would manage to register to vote. It would be defined by the transformation of people’s thinking about what was possible for their lives, if only enough of them discovered their voices and got together to speak…The permanent effect of the Freedom Schools on many of us who were involved has been to remind us and empower us to teach for freedom with whoever our students are. Wherever our students are.” And that quote made me think that, maybe, the ultimate impacts of the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides are more subtle, and perhaps will take longer to detect, than what I might initially think. That they have impacted me in more ways than I might immediately recognize. And that what I learned and saw and did and dared, as part of that heady and exhausting and rather unprecedented mobilization, may continue to inform and transform my work for justice for years to come.

Bob Moses is quoted in the book as saying to the white students who came for the orientation, “Don’t come to Mississippi this summer to save the Mississippi Negro. Only come if you understand, really understand, that his freedom and yours are one.” That’s how I have always viewed my work in the immigrant community.

Maybe that makes me a real freedom rider after all.

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