From Freedom Riders to Safety Pins

People are wearing safety pins as a way to protest the recent election of Donald Trump. “Wearing my #safetypin because I am a queer, Jewish woman and I stand with all of my fellow humans,” wrote Miranda Day on Twitter. “For my Hispanic great-nephew, my Jewish great-niece and my African-American 2nd cousins I wear my pin,” Tweeted Noreen Nellis. It was a “simple symbol of solidarity,” wrote Michelle Goldman at Slate.

The safety pin protest that seeks to stand up against what many see is a wave of populism and an uptick in racism in the United States is a far cry from the previous civil rights struggles that our ancestors lived through. In May 1961, the first of numerous “Freedom Rides” set off from Washington D.C to protest segregation. Although the US Supreme Court had banned segregation on public transportation, it was widely enforced throughout the South. Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality, seven blacks and six whites sought to drive through the south to Louisiana. Instead, one of their buses was stopped in Anniston, Alabama and the men were attacked by KKK members. The bus was firebombed. Many of the volunteers were hospitalized.

The attacks escalated throughout the summer of 1961 as more than 400 freedom riders volunteered to keep trying to show that segregation would not be tolerated. They were arrested and beaten by mobs. Around half the volunteers for these rides were white and it is estimated that the majority of these white men were Jewish. Men like Rabbi Israel Dresner not only tested the segregated bus lines, but also attempted to challenge segregation at an airport restaurant. Dresner was arrested with 10 others in Tallahassee sentenced for his “crime.”

While the freedom riders suffered extreme violence, sometimes from mobs numbering in the thousands, none were killed. However, in 1964, three civil rights workers involved in the “Freedom Summer” campaign to register African-Americans to vote were murdered in Mississippi. The story of the murder of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney was popularized in the film Mississippi Burning.

My mom and dad used to tell me stories of those heady 1960s. My father worked briefly in Corinth, Mississippi. Those were the days when the KKK was still powerful. It was dangerous to challenge their deep roots in the soil and difficult to be a northerner from New York City, even if one wasn’t a civil rights activist. You can still find video online of the KKK in Corinth at a 2012 rally and photos online of the Mississippi White Knights “passing the torch.”


When I think of the safety pins, I remember my grandma’s stories about hosting the Black Panthers in the late 60s on Martha’s Vineyard. She was convinced that the FBI kept a file on her radical contacts. J. Edgar Hoover was still in charge back then. “Her house was always filled with people who came to enjoy the good company they found in her home,” recalled the Vineyard Gazette in a eulogy about her. Among those people were men and women fighting for civil rights.

It’s a different time now. In those days hate speech and racism often meant real violence. It wasn’t about safety pins and safe spaces: it was about military escorts by the national guard to let kids go to school. Nicole Silverberg, a writer, re-tweeted an anti-semitic message she received shortly after the recent election. “Less than 24 hours since Trump was elected and I already got this saying I should be in a concentration camp.” That’s serious and should be reported. But there are also others joking about whether people can take their Harry Potter books to the camps. “I hope I’m sent to the same camp as Lady Gaga,” wrote one man.

It wasn’t as funny decades ago. It’s important to put that in perspective. Asked about harassment of Muslims and Latinos in an interview on CBS, Trump said he had told people to “stop it.” Let’s recall the prevarication that John F. Kennedy had about the Freedom Riders in 1961. He told Pennsylvania Democrat Harris Wofford in May 1961 that “I wonder whether they [the riders] have the best interest of their country at heart. Do you know that one of them is against the atom bomb – yes, he even picketed against it in jail.” Kennedy was concerned that it would be “embarrassing” abroad because the Soviets would critique US racism. According to Raymond Arsenault’s study of the period newscasters such as David Brinkley claimed the riders were “accomplishing nothing whatsoever,” and were doing “harm” to the country.

We too often take it for granted the ease with which we protest racism, on Twitter or with safety pins. People face very little personal safety threats. They feel a sense of racism, a rise in micro-aggressions. There is no reason to belittle or excuse that. But the consensus today is against racism. If activists see where racism must be confronted they should confront it. They should picket and struggle against it. But the ham-handed exaggerated stories of “when will I sent to the camps,” is not helpful and depreciates the very real struggles that people in our own families faced. One of my grandfathers used to drive to work to hospital with a gun during the 1960s because of the riots.

This is a different time. We are privileged to wear safety pins and not wear casts from the beatings of the KKK. We are privileged to suffer on Twitter and not be lynched. We are privileged to have political leaders who condemn racism rather than claim that protesting it is a form of embarrassing the US. The real embarrassment is always racism, not those who reveal it. But how we stand in solidarity against it matters. It’s important to stand in reverence of our forebears, like the freedom riders, and the freedoms they brought us. At the very least this is a moment to discuss with our parents and grandparents what activism means today. Yes, some people feel this is the scariest they have felt in their lives. My mom and dad don’t think so. “This is a rerun of Newt Gingrich’s success in the 1990s,” my mom texted me. She should know.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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