In a May, nearly 60 years ago and hot enough for seersucker and funeral fans, the attorney general of the United States, Robert Kennedy, gave the Law Day speech at the University of Georgia.
It was less than a week after Freedom Riders had boarded two buses in Washington, bound for New Orleans, with stops along the way in the South at segregated restrooms, lunch counters and city buses.
Robert Kennedy was in Georgia to thank supporters for voting for his brother, but he knew his audience was not peppered with liberals. The message of his speech was, (treading lightly), reminding Georgians the Justice Department intended to enforce civil rights statutes, but, (winning grin here), not with an iron fist.
The governor of Georgia was not in the audience, but one of two African American students who had integrated the university, Charlayne Hunter, was.
Attorney General Kennedy was not yet aware a dozen students and volunteers, both African American and white, were riding south in snub-nosed, open-windowed buses on a mission to challenge segregation on public transportation.
They had practiced peaceful sit-ins and were deemed ready to confront resistance to integrated seating on buses and at lunch counters.
In Atlanta, the Freedom Riders were greeted by Martin Luther King Jr., who supported their journey, but cautioned there could be trouble ahead in Alabama. Dr. King did not join the group, fearing his presence would stir up agitators along the way.
It was Mother’s Day, but there was no peace in the valley. In Anniston, Alabama, an angry mob met the bus, slashing tires, breaking windows. Though a local police car escorted the bus to the city limits, on an isolated stretch of highway, a man threw rags doused with gasoline into the bus, forcing the passengers to flee. Afraid they would be attacked, a highway patrolman scattered the mob by firing shots into the air.
By Day Seven of the ride, the scene in Montgomery was filled with hate. A mob, brandishing hammers and chains, surrounded the bus. After an eyewitness account from members of his staff, at the scene, beaten and in the hospital, Attorney General Kennedy ordered federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders.
Over the summer of 1961, over 400 Freedom Riders took seats on segregated buses, symbolizing the right of African American citizens to sit where they chose on public transportation.
Six months of unrest followed until “White” and “Colored” signs in bus and train stations were removed, even in Mississippi.
One of the Freedom Riders was future Georgia Rep. John Lewis, then 21 and a senior at a Baptist seminary. Rep. Lewis would go on to work in the civil rights movement, leading liberal citizens through peaceful demonstrations and lunch counter sit-ins and was nearly killed by a blow to the head while marching in Selma, Alabama.
Years of public service and a seat in Congress afforded John Lewis a well-deserved place of recognition at the inauguration of Barack Obama. America’s first African American president handed Lewis a card in a quiet moment. “Because of you, John,” it read.
It was respect due and well-deserved. As Lewis begins treatment for pancreatic cancer, African American children fill their arms with library books, a privilege John Lewis never received as a youngster.
Because he was a child of color growing up in rural Georgia, he was denied a library card. Yet, his life speaks to inclusion and there is not a bitter bone in his body.
“Never let anyone diminish your light,” he writes. “Speak out against injustice. Clothe yourself in the work of love.”
“Because of you, John” reminds us of his fairness and protection of Georgians, regardless of race. The son of sharecroppers is a voice for equal rights. We pray a lifetime of work in the name of justice and equality will be his armor of healing.