Courage has always been a relative sort of thing. We consider it, reflected through both our personal prisms of perspective and the evolving context of time.
I would suggest that it’s become cheapened by our reduced standards of what is honorable, important and beneficial to society. I cringe whenever a reader calls me “brave” for speaking my mind. That’s not bravery, it’s bravado. There’s a big difference.
Fifty years ago, during a hot Southern summer in a place called Philadelphia in Mississippi, real courage found a home. It settled in the hearts and minds of all different types of people: young, not-so-young, Jews, priests and nuns, laborers and lawyers, men, women, children.
Freedom Summer was a time when speaking your mind, “coming out” for equality, attacking the bigotry of acts and not merely offensive “words,” and literally putting your body between the victims and the victimizers was common.
I was 2 years old that summer, so I have no personal memories. Fortunately, I don’t need them. Grainy black-and-white photographs; archival voice recordings; books about the murder of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman; documentaries — all these things are artifacts that, far from being fossilized in media amber, bear striking witness to the bonfire of righteous purpose. That courage did not die with the people who had it. That courage turns 50 this year, and as long as we remember, it will remain immortal.
To a society that trumpets “courage” too easily, except for those instances when it should be noticed, as on the battlefield or in the selfless heart of a first responder, the type of bravery exhibited by the so-called Freedom Riders is hard to comprehend.
Going down to Mississippi to speak truth to corrupted power carried with it the possibility of no return trip home, as two Jewish boys from New York found out when they were ambushed by the Klan, murdered and thrown into a ditch alongside their black companion. That happened 50 years ago this summer. The fact that it took four decades for anyone to actually pay for that crime is an example of how poisonous that climate was, and how deeply that poison seeped into the culture of the place.
The South in those days was a place apart, a place where the Klan laid down the law at night and filled the offices of power by day.
Freedom Summer lasted for a season, but its repercussions were felt for many more.
My Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) father took his own bus trip down to Mississippi, in June 1967. It was a time when a movie like In The Heat of the Night still felt like front-page news, and Martin Luther King was 10 months away from becoming immortal.
Ted Flowers had just gotten his law degree from Temple, and chose to break it in down south. Daddy registered voters, defended indigents and went toe-to-toe with caricatures of humanity in bureaucratic town halls. He also had his own run-in with the Klan, at night, coming back from a diner dinner that included some great food and some uncomfortable glares. Fortunately, a kid who grew up on the streets of West Philly was — at least in this instance — able to take care of himself.
It was easy for those who didn’t live shoulder to shoulder with Jim Crow to look at some of those Freedom Riders as troublemakers. Daddy knew the truth, even three years on, and he wrote about it in the journal he kept: “But the people who really impress me are the impoverished negro and the volunteer whites. They are not beatniks, or communists, or radicals. They are fine individuals, worthy of respect.
“The young students down here for the summer go out into the remote rural areas and assume considerable risks to help. I wish I had their courage.”
Courage is a precious commodity. Today, we have trouble recognizing it. But there was once a summer when it was in abundant supply.