On Wednesday night, the Stanford NAACP, MECha, Black Student Union, History Department, African and African American Studies Department, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute kicked off Black Liberation Month at Stanford with an evening discussion with three original Freedom Riders.
The Freedom Rides were a notable part of the Civil Rights Movement, where an interracial group of bus riders set out to test a new law outlawing segregation in transportation terminals. Sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the riders used nonviolent, civil disobedience to highlight the injustice of segregation and Jim Crow laws.
One of the Freedom Riders who spoke on the panel earlier today was Helen Singleton, a former student of Santa Monica City College at the time, who decided to get on the bus for social justice. After the event, I asked Helen five questions:
1) You used nonviolence as a strategy to highlight the injustice of segregation – is there ever a place for violence in a social movement?
Helen: No. That’s the short answer. First of all, violence has been around for a long time. It was the message that’s been used against poor people, and against black people in the South for two to three hundred years. All they had to do was hang you, shoot you, burn your house, and people would back down. That was something that they were very good at. And so you can’t beat them at that game, because that’s their game. We had to have numbers of people – I’m not saying that we want to have them get beat – but we had to not respond with their weapon of choice, which is violence.
2) Do you think the civil rights movement is over today?
Helen: No, not as long as Martin Luther King, Jr. says, as long as there is injustice anywhere, it is injustice everywhere. And there is still plenty of injustice.
3) What would say are the current civil rights issues?
Helen: The most outstanding one? I can’t say. Because there are so many, and they’re not as clear cut now. It’s more covert now, and it’s more widespread now. Even though I do consider the civil rights movement as have been successful, we were combating overt injustice. That is, we could see it. The signs were there. But now, you don’t see the signs. The Ku Klux Klan isn’t wearing hoods anymore. They wear three piece suits and carry briefcases. What needs to happen now is for people to learn the new ways. Actually, they’re old, but they’re done differently. And we just need to learn to be smarter and outsmart them at their game.
4) What do you think is the social movement of today?
Helen: It’s up to the new generation to know what the social movement is. I can see that there is something called Occupy Wall Street, and I can also see that there are other things happening. But, each generation has its own issue.
5) If you could give one piece of advice to today’s activists, what would it be?
Helen: Get organized. Have a clear cut goal. And know what you’re going after. And that you can only do one thing at a time, because you can’t change everything at once. You can work on different fronts, but you need to know that you need to focus on one thing at a time – and you have to define it for yourself and go after it.