Commentary: James Lawson, a leading theoretician of nonviolence within the Civil Rights Movement, was instrumental in helping to develop the strategy for Freedom Riders in 1961. Lawson once remarked: "Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.”
Put less amorously, another Freedom Rider, Charles Person, recounted: "You didn't know what you were going to encounter. You had night riders. You had hoodlums . . . You could be antagonized at any point in your journey.”
Diane Nash added: "Traveling in the segregated South for black people was humiliating. 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.”
Fast forward to the year 2018. Over 7,000 migrants are making their way north from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. President Trump has labeled this mass exodus a "caravan," calling them "hardened criminals," "bad people," "very bad thugs and gang members," and pawns of Democrats hoping to use them against Republicans heading into the midterms.
As a student of the American Civil Rights Movement, I can't help but notice the similarities between African- American freedom riders of the 60s and today's freedom marchers in Central America. In fact, many of the same disparaging remarks made against Lawson, Person, Nash, and their colleagues, are being used to berate and belittle the aspirations of desperate migrants seeking asylum across the border. 60 years ago white segregationists stoked the fears and paranoia of an entire country by calling the Freedom Riders criminals, communists, and even terrorists. Distorting or flat out dismissing the genuine reasons that compelled these brave men and women to risk their lives by traveling through hostile towns and cities in the South, the white segregationists responded the same way that the Trump administration is responding to the migrants. Both resorted to fear mongering, propaganda, the threat of violent martial and vigilante suppression, and the bending of constitutional laws.
Yet just as the Freedom Riders were trying to break down an immoral system that kept African Americans in a place of mental bondage, economic poverty, and second class citizenship, today's migrants are trying to escape a world that is no longer livable. The threat of gang warfare, hunger and starvation, and dwindling economic and political rights have forced them to make the ultimate sacrifice for themselves and their families. They are not terrorists. They are not hoodlums. They are not crazed hoards rushing towards the border with evil intentions to destroy our way of life. They are people seeking freedom. They are people seeking a way to promote justice-and not just for themselves but for anyone in any country who faces oppression.
Mark Samels, the Executive Producer of American Experience on PBS, once said: "The Freedom Riders were remarkable, fearless Americans. They were extraordinary, ordinary people . . . young people who took the reins of history and wouldn't let go.”
The migrants seeking asylum in the United States are no different. They are remarkable, fearless Central Americans. They are extraordinary, ordinary people who are taking the reins of history and refusing to let go. They should be treated with respect and admiration rather than insults and armed confrontation.
So what exactly should be done to treat these people with the dignity that there deserve? Should we let all of them across the border without checking their personal backgrounds, state of health, and safety plan for settling in America? Of course not. A system should be in place to process every single person who wishes to enter the United States. This is an enormously complex and expensive undertaking. But it is not beyond our comprehension or capacity to achieve. What we need is organization, massive deployment of peacekeepers, social workers, and medical personnel (much of whom can be drawn from the military). We will also need enlisted help from the UN. But most importantly, we need leaders who are not afraid of responding to crises with intelligence and compassion.
What we absolutely do not need is 15,000 US troops lined up on the border with loaded rifles ready to commit a massacre. That would not only be one of the most reprehensible tragedies in American history, but one of the most preventable and unnecessary acts of political violence to take place in the long struggle for freedom in any century.