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Posted on May 25, 2011
Photo illustration from an image by Colin Grey

(Page 3)

Kasia Anderson: Right.

Marcia Dawkins: And, so, that’s kind of what I brought with me to the table when I met these ladies and gentlemen.

Kasia Anderson: How many of them were there? The original ones?

Marcia Dawkins: There were over 400 original Freedom Riders.

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Kasia Anderson: OK.

Marcia Dawkins: It started with a group of 12 from D.C., and then it just continued to mushroom from there. The Freedom Riders in particular that I met—and the one who just inspired me to write that piece, Dr. Rip Patton—he’s on the third wave that came from National, Tennessee, and went directly to Mississippi to take on the extreme violence there. And they talk about so many things, but the thing that resonated with me most—certainly, after thanking them for what they did, so that you and I could be sitting here talking about this today—is their experience in prison. And I alluded a little bit to that in the piece, but basically they talked about four or five people being held, or sometimes seven or eight, depending on how overcrowded it got in a six-by-eight cell. They talked about mattresses being taken away; sometimes food and water being taken away; all books confiscated. And so, you know—and being subject to random strip searches. I mean, all the inhumanities we can imagine that they suffered in prison because they chose to challenge this law. And that as a result, you know, you and I and everyone can travel as we please. But yet there are really still no monuments to this. And I don’t just mean, you know, some big statue somewhere, but that it’s really not recorded in the annals of history. These riders are not given the credit, I think, that they really deserve for sparking the Civil Rights Movement on through the 1960s. And, more to the point, they didn’t get counseling afterwards. So they were just kind of expected to go back to life, whether that was to a job or to a family or to school, and never really able to process or talk about some of these horrible things and traumas that they endured.

Kasia Anderson: Yeah, you mention in the piece about the sort of amnesia that some of them still experience around, obviously, traumatic events.

Marcia Dawkins: Absolutely. Dr. Patton says he can’t remember how he got home from the Freedom Rides, after being released from prison. Others, you know, can’t remember the trek from Mississippi or Alabama to the prison, or what happened in prison, or other people’s faces. Others remember smells from the prison, but don’t know why that smell gives them the willies. So a lot of people report having these type of reactions to things like Lysol, and household cleaners, and not being able to really figure out why. So I think that the Freedom Rides are certainly significant for us as a nation, and in terms of history. But they’re really significant for the riders themselves, to put the pieces together, and to get some reconciliation for themselves and for each other.

Kasia Anderson: Well, since you mentioned that you touched on the issue of prison in your piece, but you wanted to expand more on it, just to give listeners a sense of what was at stake, what were some of the most, I guess, violent or, you know, strongest pushback situations that they encountered in any of the waves of Freedom Riders?

Marcia Dawkins: Sure. Again, I’ll quote Dr. Patton here, from a particular event that still stays with him. One of his cellmates, whose name he chose not to mention, was doing a protest within the prison—so they engaged even in civil disobedience within the prison. So they said, you know, if you continue doing something we’re going to take your mattress. And so they came back, well, you can take our mattress; that’s OK. You can take our toothpaste, and different things. And so one of his cellmates was protesting and had had an exchange like this with one of the guards, and it really got escalated. And one of the higher-level prison guards told this guard, you know, you have to get this guy to submit by any means necessary. And so, unfortunately, this guard beat one of Patton’s cellmates very severely. And as he was beating this man, he was crying himself, because he didn’t want to do it. But he knew that he would receive that beating if he didn’t do this. So that’s, you know, that’s kind of one event in the multiple layers of victimization that went on in this prison. Women also experienced some particular horrors of having to be strip-searched. And, as I learned—this is not in any history book that I ever read in school—but every orifice was checked to make sure that no one was smuggling things in. As you can imagine, for women this was particularly traumatic.

Kasia Anderson: Right.

Marcia Dawkins: And so one of the Freedom Riders, Joan Mulholland, suggested that perhaps a lot of the women react to Lysol and these household cleaners in this way because that is the smell and those are the materials that were used for the officers to disinfect their hands between examinations.

Kasia Anderson: Hmm. Right.

Marcia Dawkins: So those are two of the events that they mentioned to me that really stick out.

Kasia Anderson: Well, to bring us up to date, and also to the National Public Library events that you witnessed, what do you think is, you know, the goal of the Student Riders now? Like, what kind of legacy are they hoping to carry forward; what’s their mission?

Marcia Dawkins: I think they have at least a twin mission, and that’s reconciliation and communication. And as I was able to speak to several of them, they told me how they’d witnessed several reconciliations over the course of the trip. So, you know, for any of us who watched “Oprah,” we saw some reconciliations there between people who’d been beaten—in fact, Congressman John Lewis, and some people from the Klan who had engaged in those beatings, and how they were able to exercise forgiveness. In Anniston, Alabama, one of the original Riders, Frank Thomas, was approached by the son of the Klansman who nearly beat him to death. And they were able to reconcile and have a very heartfelt and emotional talk. So I think that’s part of it, I think, in the face of these young people who are so hopeful, and want to use these strategies to go out and fight the issues that are important to them—particularly economic inequality is the one that they all mentioned to me when I spoke to them and asked them what was on their hearts and minds. And then underneath that were issues of identity and nation and politics. But economics really seems to be on these student minds. In fact, several of them told me how much they appreciated just visiting the National Public Library, not only because of its historical location—I mean, it’s where a lot of the sit-ins took place—but also because libraries in their hometowns have been closed down.

Kasia Anderson: Wow.

Marcia Dawkins: They have nowhere to go to read and write and learn about these things. So there’s certainly a lot going on here, and I think their ability to document all of this, if you go to the PBS site, you’ll see that the students are engaging in their own citizen journalism. And I think they’re doing honor to their own experience, making use of technology that the original Riders wish that they had had.

Kasia Anderson: Right. And with that, we’re going to have to end. But it’s a nice—this is a very moving story about how social movements can kind of ripple on through the ages. And so … readers and listeners can also refer to Marcia Dawkins’ piece, “50 Years of Freedom,” on Truthdig.com. Thanks so much for your time, Marcia.

Marcia Dawkins: Thank you very much for having me. It’s a pleasure.

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