Why Obama: An Addendum

In the documentary film Freedom Riders, which I watched yesterday, there are frequent interviews with John Patterson who was the governor of Alabama at the time of the Freedom Rides. He was a segregationist, and his refusal to provide protection for the Freedom Riders allowed them to be beaten severely by white mobs. The interviews are curious. He comes off as intelligent and he speaks frankly and unapologetically about the time. He is never put on the spot by the interviewer. One comes away from the film curious about his current views. (He was in his late 80s when the film was made.) I looked him up and it turns out that he renounced his segregationist views a long time ago. (I wonder why he wasn’t given the opportunity to say so.) He insists, and of course he’s right, that in those days being in favor of integration in a place like Alabama was political suicide. Even more interesting, in 2008 he endorsed Obama for president. The Freedom Riders were not supported initially by the Civil Rights establishment—including Martin Luther King. It was thought they were pushing things too far, too fast. In the end they won. I think their pacifist stand had a lot to do with it. They were young, and many people thought them hopelessly naive. But they had courage, good hearts, a good sense of humor, and smart tactics. When Mississippi tried to intimidate the Freedom Riders by locking them up in the notoriously severe Parchman Prison rather than in a relatively easy city jail, the Freedom Riders said, “Okay, let’s fill the prison with so many of us that putting us in prison becomes a huge hassle for the state of Mississippi.” And they did it. They sent hundreds of volunteers—black, white, men, and women—down to  break the segregation laws, and Mississippi was overwhelmed by it all. The Freedom Riders are true heroes, not the fakes who get passed off as heroes nowadays.

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5 Responses to “Why Obama: An Addendum”

  1. TZ Says:

    Hopefully we all grow wiser with age, as Mr. Patterson did. It seems as a society, we are raising our head against the bullying from any organization. Perhaps in a few hundred years, if we haven’t fried ourselves off the planet, most humans will understand that the appreciation of diversity is a GOOD thing. Now I have to go read up on those Freedom Riders!

  2. Margaret Benbow Says:

    I think you’re right that in the Jim Crow days some southern politicians had more enlightened views, which they kept private for trhe sake of their careers. Huey Long’s biographer said that in the beginning of his career more racist politicians beat him soundly at the polls, and Long made a conscious decision that “no one will ever out-(N word) me again”. From that moment his public face was that of a racist.

    Yes, the Freedom Riders are true heroes. It’s hard to think of anything more heroic than being willing to throw their bodies against the brick wall of a racism which seemed to have every power and advantage on its side.

  3. Sarah Says:

    “The Freedom Riders are true heroes, not the fakes who get passed off as heroes nowadays.”

    I’d hoped another reader would ask what I’m about to ask, but I guess none will for the moment.

    So here goes:

    If you don’t mind saying so, whom do you regard to be fake heroes? If you’d rather not say so publicly, no problem; I’ll understand. I’m really curious!

    • markbittner Says:

      Given the imperial culture we live in, I sort of hate doing this. But here goes. First an easy one: People like Lance Armstrong. I never thought he was any kind of hero. First and foremost, he is a competitive egotist, and there’s nothing heroic about someone like that. I have to say that our elite military commandos are not heroes—nor anybody else’s elite military commandos. We send these people into third world countries with the most sophisticated weaponry and space age communications to do the empire’s dirty work. That’s not heroic. Heroes are not killers. To be a real hero, you have to have a good heart and uncompromising compassion. You have to be in it for the good of all.

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