In the Valley of the Shadow of Freedom Riders

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Yesterday morning, as I stood across from where it all began at 1100 New York Avenue in Washington, D.C., and watched as the college kids linked arms with their elders and sang freedom songs -- 'The Buses are a-coming, The buses are a-coming, the buses are a-coming, Oh Yeah.'

And I wondered for a moment, would I or could I have gotten on that bus 50 years earlier?Would I have been brave or insane enough to take on an entire system built on hating my black skin? Could I have taken the barbs, beatings and constant shouts of "nigger"? Could I have been non-violent when every bone in my body would have wanted to fight back, to possibly kill?

I already knew the answer.

As a younger man, I'd found my manhood and to a degree, my sense of blackness, in Malcolm X, our shining black prince who taught us the kind of self-love and respect that meant violent self-defense if need be. What's good for the goose, he said, is good for the gander.

So, I already know where I would have stood -- likely with my own pipe or bat, at least a fist full of rage.

On that grassy knoll, across from that old bus station, the song and the thought had faded and soon we were piling on to a bus, headed into the Deep South. This was the Freedom Ride 2011 style.

This time the ride is a retracing of history, a war reenactment, minus the mobs and beatings. Instead of the Congress On Racial Equality pooling resources and raising money to support the riders, PBS is picking up the bill, part celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides, part marketing and PR for its documentary 'Freedom Riders' by Stanley Nelson that premiers May 16 on PBS.

There will likely be no firebombing of the bus or attacks by rabid hooligans this time. I hope not at least, after all, young men are still coming up dead in Mississippi. Suicide, one recent news account attributed the death of a young man found hanging under mysterious circumstances. So much of that dirt hallowed ground, drenched in the blood and sweat of centuries of black men and women.

Young men like LeRoy Ford, 19, a student at the University of Nebraska, were eager and anxious, gracious in the way so many of these young people seem to be.

His road to the day had been anything but easy, but his eloquence belies the triumph of will and intellect that so many of these students, black and white, have faced to achieve astounding levels of growth and academic success. He came from a tough neighborhood in Kansas City. His mother died when he was eight months old. His father was locked up most of his youth. Few in his family ever talked much about race or the bad old days. His grandmother grew up in an all-black neighborhood -- every lunch counter was a black lunch counter. Racism was felt but rarely seen.

"It has become so real now," he said settling into his seat on the bus. "They got on the bus not knowing if they would ever make it back. It's amazing because they are unsung heroes. But they are true American heroes. To sit with them, to talk and eat dinner with them. It's an extreme honor."

Another young man, Charles Reed Jr., from Jersey City, New Jersey and as of Saturday a graduate of the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, skipped his graduation to join the riders.

"The first thing I thought about was the sacrifice of missing graduation is nothing compared to the sacrifices of the Freedom Riders who dropped out of school, left their families to go into the Deep South with the fear and the real thought that they might be killed," he said. "That's real courage, not being unafraid but doing what needs to be done in spite of that fear."

Soon we were heading down Route 1 from D.C., through the heart of the old Confederacy, to Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, Richmond and Farmville, Virginia, much like our predecessors had half a century earlier.

I imagine the scene was much the same those days, the placid, tree-lined brooks and hills hugging the sides of the road. We were traveling through the Black Belt, passing the old gas stations and markets, the occasional strip mall plopped throughout and in between. Again, hallowed ground.

In the coming days I'll be telling stories from the road, of the Freedom Riders and students and people we meet along the way. As you join me, ask yourself a question. Would you have gotten on the bus?

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