May 4th marked the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders. If you didn’t know, Freedom Riders were civil rights activists (both black and white) who rode interstate buses into the segregated south. The first Freedom Riders left Washington D.C. on May 4th 1961…they never made it to their final destination…New Orleans. They were met with violence in Mississippi and elsewhere as witnessed below.
I was only 14 years old then and living in the south Bronx (New York City). At that time, I had never been further south than Philadelphia, PA… and anywhere further south than that seemed like another country to me. My view of the south was based on what I had seen on our black & white TV (like the picture above) and when my grandfather reported on what he had read in the newspapers. Years later…my uncle also told me his story about accompanying my great-grandmother on a train trip from New York City to Manassas, Virginia back in the late 40’s. Once they arrived in Washington, D.C. they had to switch trains…and had to sit in the car designated for “Negroes” for the remainder of their short trip to Virginia.
Even as a child, and then a Bronx teenager, I could go to any public bathroom. My friends and I enjoyed movies at the infamous Loew’s Paradise theater on Fordham Road…in an exclusively white neighborhood and we weren’t relegated to the balcony! Sure we knew that there were a few neighborhoods within the Bronx that were not the most hospitable to “Negroes” and we avoided them (check out “A Bronx Tale”…awesome!) Never the less, I had several white friends in elementary school (before their parents moved out of the area within a few years). Can you imagine, one of my closest friends was named Igor Heitlinger! (I need to try to find him).
I was one of two “coloreds” in Junior High School (my Mom falsified my address so that I could take advantage of what she perceived was a better opportunity…which it was). Then, I attended James Monroe High School…a miniature “United Nations” at the time. I had friends of all ethnicities…and still do! A few interracial couples even attended the prom! It was during the later years in high school that I became more and more aware of the atrocities happening in the south. But again…that was another world to me.
Then I attended the University of Dubuque, in Dubuque, Iowa (that’s a whole ‘nother story). With a total student population of just over 1100, there were about 20 “Negroes” attending the university during my freshman year. Given my past school experiences…this low ratio didn’t phase me at all. And besides…I was in Iowa…a state not heavily populated with us folk! In subsequent years…more “Negroes” attended…many from the south. At the time, to me, Dubuque was an island, isolated from the craziness of the racial turmoil escalating in the south. I used to joke “light-heartedly” with the southern “Negroes” attending the university, how they put up with this? I just could not comprehend it. Little did I know about the crap they had to live with while growing up. It was just incomprehensable to me.
Now…50 years later…knowing what I know, I would love to have an in-depth conversation with those southern “Negroes” to get their perspective on what it was really like growing up in the South back in those days. I ask now because I think they may have been somewhat “at a distance” from the white folks during their Dubuque experience. That’s just my perception. At the time, as a boy from the “integrated” north, I couldn’t see nor understand why there may have been this “distance”. After watching some of the coverage last week on the Freedom Riders…now I think I know why. I will definitely be watching the “Freedom Riders” special on PBS next week. I’m sure I’ll learn even more!
As my immediate family and close friends will attest, one of my favorite sayings is that “you are a product of your environment”!