I watched a two-hour documentary on PBS about the Freedom Riders, a group of young people (mostly college students) both black and white (committed to non-violence), who rode public busses together into the Deep South (in 1961) to challenge state segregation laws that had been ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. Watching the courage, commitment, and heroism of the Freedom Riders was deeply moving.
The first group left on two busses from Washington DC with the intention of riding all the way to New Orleans. In Anniston, Alabama, the first bus was surrounded by an angry white mob that broke out a window. threw a fire bomb inside, and held the door shut. Finally someone in the mob yelled that the bus was going to explode and they ran away, allowing the choking Freedom Riders to get out of the bus just in time. As they lay on the ground, a courageous white girl, ignored the mob and brought them water.
The second bus arrived in Birmingham, unaware of what had happened to the people on the first bus. As they entered the bus terminal, it was filled with hate-filled whites who began to beat them with bats and crow bars and to kick them. (The local police had promised the mob 15 minutes to do whatever they wanted to the Freedom Riders.) Then the riders from both busses were put in the Birmingham jail. Eventually they were gotten out of Alabama on a plane.
At that time, a group of Fisk University students in Nashville, felt like the Freedom Rides should not be stopped because of violence. So they decided to ride a bus as a mixed group of blacks and whites the next day. They were going to Birmingham and then on to New Orleans.
John Seigenthaler, who was US Attorney General, Robert Kennedy’s assistant, had been dispatched to Birmingham to try to help protect the Freedom Riders. He called the leader of the Fisk Freedom Riders, Diane Nash, and told her not to come to Birmingham. She told him that they were coming, no matter what. He said something like: “You don’t understand, the situation is so bad that somebody is going to get killed.” She replied: “You don’t understand, we signed our last will and testament last night.”
The Fisk Freedom Riders made it to Birmingham and were allowed to go on to Jackson, Mississippi. There they were arrested and put in the worst prison in Mississippi. Then another group of Fisk students left for Jackson. They too were put in the same prison. Eventually more than 400 Freedom Riders, both blacks and whites, were put in that notorious prison.
Finally, the federal government required states to end segregation on all busses and in all bus terminals that are involved in interstate commerce. The courageous non-violence of the Freedom Riders won a great victory for freedom in America and helped the Civil Rights Movement grow stronger and bolder.
Watching the documentary, I kept thinking about how we need people like the Freedom Riders today, especially in the church. Nowadays, churches are perhaps the most segregated groups in America, when according to the Bible, they should look like Heaven and should be the most multicultural and multiethnic groups in the country. I prayed: “Lord, raise up people like the Freedom Riders, who will risk all to cross racial lines and bring racial reconciliation to Your church.”
Then the next day, I was encouraged to attend a class on leadership at Trevecca Nazarene University. When I arrived, the class turned out to about how to make a church multi-racial and multicultural, rather than about leadership in general. The class was based on the Biblical idea that church should have the diversity of Heaven, people from “every kindred and every tribe.”
The class reminded me of when I first saw the movie, Return of the Titans. Watching that movie, I was moved to tears & I kept asking God; “Lord, let me help bring the church together across racial lines the way that coach brought that team, school, and town together across racial lines.”
Perhaps it is time for some courageous Freedom Worshippers to leave their mostly white, black, or particular cultural church, and go be part of a church of another race or ethnicity.