Thursday, May 19, 2011

We share no common frame of reference with 1961 thanks to the student catalysts of 1961

I have questioned before misguided attempts of some who misuse the Civil Rights Movement in the news media by comparing it to benign current events. A couple of weeks ago columnist Gail Kerr seemed to feel that the best way to honor the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides was to compare the Nashville students who risked their safety, their lives by testing desegregation on interstate buses with Nashville student movements today as they editorialize in campus newspapers and demonstrate on uncomfortably cold days.

Hardly comparable to sending protest emails or tweets
As far as I know, none of the Vanderbilt, TSU, or Belmont students protesting lately faced the risk of injury, death, imprisonment or expulsion from their universities. It is not denigrating the protest of today's students to argue that the protests of 1961 faced longer odds and more dire consequences than anything students face in 2011. It does not take away from the importance of contemporary causes to argue that the memory of 1961 needs to be safeguarded against trivialization through apples-and-oranges comparisons.

Here is but one example civil rights historian Taylor Branch (Parting the Waters) documents of the hazards of student protests in 1961:

Facing a battery of cameras, microphones, and notepads, [John Lewis] got halfway through an answer to the first press question before falling strangely silent, transfixed by what he saw coming up behind the reporters .... [A reporter turned and] held out both arms to create a boundary for the interview, but [a dozen white men], brandishing baseball bats, bottles, and lead pipes, pushed past him .... [Some of the Freedom Riders] were literally thrown over the railing onto the roofs of cars .... Those who did not take their luggage with them were soon pelted with their own suitcases ....

[S]everal Alabama reporters ... saw a dozen men surround Jim Zwerg, the white Wisconsin exchange student at Fisk in Nashville. One of the men grabbed Zwerg's suitcase and smashed him in the face with it. Others slugged him to the ground, and when he was dazed beyond resistance, one man pinned Zwerg's head between his knees so that the others could take turns hitting him. As they steadily knocked out his teeth, and his face and chest were streaming with blood, a few adults on the perimeter put their children on their shoulders to view the carnage [pp. 445-446].

During a local TV station's special commemoration of 1961, Freedom Rider and Peabody College alumnus Susan Wilbur said that, when she saw the crowd descend on Zwerg and him go limp and motionless before them, she believed that he was dead. That is the sort of vicious, graphic finality that Gail Kerr ignores in her sugar-coated column insisting that students today stake the same claims while facing the same absolute terms.

The contrast of the mere inconveniences and discomforts of today with the deadly harm, the utter crisis, and the lives-in-the-balance of the 1961 Freedom Rides does an injustice to those who bled, who braved mobs, who ended up locked in Parchman Farm cell blocks and abandoned in state-line hinterlands. The latter deserve our exclusive attention and our focused honor, not detracted by false comparisons, lest we all forget, lest today's protesters refuse to see the lessons yesterday's Freedom Riders provide.


  1. Gail Kerr rules you Mike!

  2. Hey Anonymous,

    You are an idiot. I doubt you are capable of reading anything beyond the menu at Shoney's. Though I'm sure your eyes light up when you see the word "buffet."

    The Tennesean helped deliver two of the greatest columnists ever in journalism:

    Tom Wicker and David Halberstam.

    It's sad that the paper now let's writers like Gail Kerr "carry" such a torch.

    There is no guts, nor glory, these days with The Tennessean.

    Enclave at least respects that torch. And in my opinion, carries it.

    Anonymous, go back to reading Dick and Jane. If you get stuck on a word, Facebook me. I'll help you.