“The Freedom Rides throughout May 1961 made civil rights a nationwide movement for the first time, from being a city or regional issue,” summarized Dr. David Fankhouser.
Tracing events forward from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1946 “Morgan’s Decision” which outlawed segregation on interstate transportation, Dr. Fankhouser described how officials in southern states openly thwarted the decision, with not much of an outcry from leaders in other states or from the federal government. Not even public media gave much critical attention to the issue, except to report briefly on the first Freedom Ride sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) April 9-23, 1947. Sixteen men, eight black, eight white, representing all walks of life from a variety of states journeyed together across state lines. “They got to North Carolina and were beaten up,” said Fankhouser.
Neither this incident nor the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott in the wake of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man, nor the 1955 Interstate Commerce Commission ruling that denounced “separate but equal” in interstate bus travel, nor the 1960 Supreme Court ruling that segregated public buses were illegal, moved southern states to compliance.
In 1961 leaders of CORE took action to gain national attention. When a new set of Freedom Rides was launched May 4, Fankhouser was a 19-year-old Central State College (Ohio) student. He volunteered to ride on a May 24 bus. The new strategy to fill the jails with Freedom Riders finally gained media and national political attention.
Fankhouser’s low-key description of the beatings Freedom Riders endured and subsequent 40-42 days of incarceration belies the depth of hatred by members of the Ku Klux Klan, many of whom were elected officials and police officers.
In relating how singing freedom songs solidified their commitment to each other and to the cause of Civil Rights, Fankhouser brought us to our feet on Jan. 15 at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School as we joined with him in singing “Let Freedom Sing” and felt the electricity of uniting with people in two rows of fourteen cells each enduring inhumane treatment simply because they were acting on behalf of justice and equality.
Recognizing “50 years later we have made progress,” Fankhouser asked us to consider “Now, what would Martin [Luther King Jr.] say and do?” in the areas of justice, the economy, culture of violence, health and education, family.
The audience response centered on the lack of knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement specifically and of our history in general and what Fankhouser synthesized “as our lost sense of the value of an education in a holistic sense. We do not teach history with breadth and depth, nor do we help students develop thinking skills.” When asked how teaching biology can bring his youthful experiences to bear, Fankhouser concluded, “I consider it is my duty to produce well-rounded students who will love life.”