Fifty years ago this month, an interracial group of activists decided to take a risky step and put their bodies on the line to challenge the entrenched policy of racial segregation in the American South. They came to be known as the Freedom Riders.

The group had federal law on it side, as a recent Supreme Court decision, Boynton v. Virginia, had deemed “white only” facilities in interstate bus terminals as illegal. But that did not matter to the racist mobs, some of them organized by local police officers, which descended upon the activists when they arrived in Alabama. These mobs bloodied the Freedom Riders in Birmingham and firebombed their bus in Anniston. Scores of activists were arrested when they got to Mississippi, where police threw them into the state’s famous Parchman prison.

The Freedom Riders knew the dangers they faced. Some female riders pinned names of the next of kin to their bra straps, so that in the event that they were killed, their families would be able to identify them.

A Northern civil rights organization, the Congress of Racial Equality, launched the Freedom Rides. Then, leaders of the newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized more of them.

“Traveling in the segregated South for black people was humiliating,” said Diane Nash, one of the principal organizers. “The very fact that there were separate facilities was to say to black people and white people that blacks were so subhuman and so inferior that we could not even use public facilities that white people used.”

White allies — like James Zwerg, whose bloodied and swollen face made headline news — risked their lives alongside black activists. However, the leadership of the rides came from black activists themselves.

The Freedom Rides were conceived both to strike a blow against white supremacy and to assert the agency and humanity of black people. The Riders were ordinary people who overcame their fears to up the ante in the fight for racial justice. They embodied a collective spirit of determined resistance that can only be described as inspiring. When they were arrested and jailed, they were defiant, singing even as their captors threatened them.

Today, there is a new generation of activists who are keeping that spirit of resistance alive through their own campaigns. Like the Freedom Riders, they are challenging the ways in which citizenship and human rights are denied to certain sectors of the population.

One group is Critical Resistance, which focuses on the issue of mass incarceration and the prison industry’s insatiable hunger for young black and brown bodies. A new documentary film, “Visions of Abolition,” tells its important story.

Another group is the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, which is organizing undocumented young people in Detroit and Chicago and has gone down to Georgia to do the same. There, the group’s members have been embraced by veteran civil rights leaders.

On one level, these struggles are very different from one another, but in some fundamental ways they are part of the same tradition. It’s a tradition that has pushed against the narrow definitions of who can and cannot lay claim to citizenship — a tradition unafraid to confront the powers that be in pursuit of a more just society.

Barbara Ransby, an associate professor in the department of African-American Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the author of the award-winning biography, “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision.” She can be reached at

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Forty years ago the UN General Assembly passed a resolution against "hostile environmental modification techniques...

The beauty and the tragedy of everyday life in a war zone.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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