I say Martin Luther King, Jr. blessed all us ordinary folk…
…when he chose not to join the Freedom Riders on their trip.
In 1961, that multi-racial, multi-generational group boarded buses and traveled throughout the South to protest segregation.
Leaving behind jobs, school, and family, they endured verbal abuse, physical assault and injury, arrest and imprisonment. They endured terrorism.
If Dr. King had gone along, the group might now be known as the Martin Luther King Freedom Riders. Those brave men and women would have been overshadowed by King’s towering presence. A big loss for us, as I see it.
Yes, King’s story inspires. But I believe the story of the Freedom Riders presents us with a greater challenge.
Those folk are closer to our own size. Most had lived fairly ordinary lives before getting on those buses. And most lived fairly ordinary lives after getting off those buses. And yet they are heroes. When faced with injustice, they went beyond themselves, beyond the standards of their time.
The Freedom Riders take away our “out”—our excuse. After hearing their story, how can I say, “I can’t fight that fight—I’m just an ordinary citizen”?
I think most of us feel we have something more inside ourselves…a bigger person, usually held back by the necessities of our lives…
We wonder: could I raise this other self, if called upon to act? Untested, we doubt the reality of the strength we feel.
In answer to that doubt, the Freedom Rider story tells us: “If they did, then you can.
But also adds: “Don’t worry—afterwards, you can take off your cape and go back to being an ordinary human being.”
I’m scared of the worst within myself. But I’m also scared of the best. And for good reason. The best asks me to sacrifice. The best asks me to risk. The best asks me to go beyond my fear. The best asks me to get on that bus.
Today, we honor the courage of the Freedom Fighters and see their journey as a victory. But if I step up, I might get squashed and then forgotten. Another flattened bug on the sole of history’s shoe.
But we don’t step up to win glory, do we? We step up because we feel we must. We step up, because if we don’t, how do we live with ourselves?
Yeah, we may be flattened and forgotten. But aren’t we successful the moment we step onto that bus?
© 2017, Michael R. Patton
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