Why they go: Freedom riders then and now

My father was lucky. By the time he was arrested and jailed, the worst of the violence against the Freedom Riders was already over. Still, he was one of the so-called “outside agitators” whom Alabama Governor George Wallace had accused of “provoking” violence by his defiance of local laws and customs. As such, he had no assurance of a safe return, or any guarantee that his government, the United States government, would protect him from the torches, snipers and attack dogs of the local KKK.

My father was not naïve. He knew the dangers. He also knew that the goal of ending segregation was remote. He went, as he wrote many years later, not because he believed that his mission would succeed, but “as an act of faith in the validity of a moral act. I went because I needed to go.”

As we mark the 50th anniversary of those historic bus rides, a modern-day Freedom Ride will set out this June to challenge and focus international attention on another enduring and yet urgent injustice. The Israeli siege of Gaza has rendered 1.6 million souls – mostly refugees and the children and grandchildren of refugees – forgotten inmates in the world’s largest open-air prison. All movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza by land, air and sea is still controlled – mostly prohibited – by the Israeli military with continuing and coerced Egyptian complicity. 

The infrastructure of civil society is still in rubble. Almost no one and nothing goes in; almost no one and nothing comes out. Israeli forces still regularly invade Gaza, destroying agricultural land and homes, and killing Palestinian civilians.

The population grows more desperate. The annual $3 billion of U.S. military aid to Israel continues to flow. The world pays little attention. Egypt’s newly-announced plan to open its border with Gaza promises to relieve some of the most immediate humanitarian crisis, but it does not address the continued separation of the people of Gaza from the rest of Israeli-occupied Palestine or end the illegal naval blockade.

That is why I have been working, along with so many other Americans who care about equality and freedom, to send a U.S.-flagged ship, named The Audacity of Hope, to break the siege of Gaza. Echoing the segregationists of old on “outside agitators,” Israel has slanderously accused the organizers of the U.S. Boat to Gaza of trying to bring material aid to terrorists. 

But the U.S. Boat to Gaza’s mission is not to deliver “humanitarian aid” or any other material cargo. Instead, our ship will carry a brave band of unarmed human rights activists as well as the audacious hopes of thousands who have committed their money and time to this nonviolent mission of resistance to enduring racism and injustice. Israeli government officials have vowed to send snipers and attack dogs to stop the flotilla’s supposed “terrorists” and “provocateurs” from entering Gaza. Anyone who doubts their seriousness is simply not paying attention.

This week, 36 members of Congress appealed to the government of Turkey to stop the flotilla from sailing to “provoke another confrontation with Israel.” The Turkish government, still outraged at Israel’s murder of nine of its citizens in international waters aboard the Mavi Marmara a year ago, is unlikely to heed this AIPAC-inspired tactic.

Of course, there were leaders who similarly tried to block the Freedom Riders from “provoking confrontation” with the State of Mississippi in 1961. There will always be voices urging complacency and “patience” in the face of injustice.

The organizers of the U.S. Boat to Gaza have read and re-read Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail many times over these last months, and we are guided by its deep wisdom as the campaign to denounce our non-violent direct action as “extremism” and “provocation” escalates from both inside and outside the halls of Congress.

When The Audacity of Hope heads for Occupied Palestine and Gaza in June, its passengers will not be guaranteed safe passage by any government. They will have no more assurance of success than did my father when he stepped onto that Trailways bus a half century ago. They will be armed only with a legacy of the courage of their activist forebears, the moral outrage of a growing worldwide movement for freedom and justice in Palestine, and the steadfast hopes of an illegally occupied people. They will be reasserting their faith in the validity – indeed the necessity – of a moral act. They will be going because they need to go.

Hannah Schwarzschild is a Philadelphia-based attorney and Palestine Solidarity activist.


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