May 4th with Us: Freedom Riders during the Cold War Are Much More Important than Star Wars

Regrettably, I’ve been neglecting the significance of May 4th as the first day of the Freedom Rides in 1961. As much as I enjoy the Star Wars Day theme of “May the Fourth Be with You,” I can work more at helping my students appreciate the historical milestones of the Freedom Rides as encouragement for us to keep working out the “better angels of our nature” in terms of justice, dignity, and mutual respect as human beings.

History.com provides a helpful introduction to the significance of the rides:

The original group of 13 Freedom Riders—seven African Americans and six whites—left Washington, D.C., on a Greyhound bus on May 4, 1961. Their plan was to reach New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 17 to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that segregation of the nation’s public schools was unconstitutional.

The roles of news and mass media amplify the power of such events. PBS.org explains this role: “The Freedom Rides were successful in large part because they were able to engage the media and gain a sympathetic national audience.” In my AP and Honors English courses, we explore interconnections with important rhetorical and historical moments that don’t always fit into tidy units of study. In the fall, the Puritans, The Crucible, and the Cold War with connections to the civil rights movement. My colleague who teaches APUSH explores the Cold War history in the spring, so students get a double-dose of historical and rhetorical perspectives in the junior year.

Thinking back to resources used in previous years, one fascinating bit of Cold War argumentation from the Soviet Union asserted that in Russia one can sit on any part of the bus one wants in contrast to the “land of the free.” The page with the recording and translation of this claim has long since disappeared, so I haven’t been able to use it with my students. Today, I was thinking about such connections with countries, conflicts, freedom, justice, and public transportation. In more ways than I can explore here, the pressures of the Cold War conflicts provoked American leaders and citizens to think more thoroughly about their commitments to essential rights and freedoms.

Basically, days such as May 4th in connection to Freedom Rides can offer an opportunity for having students reach back (doing interleaving work) and make connections to our previous learning once again in the spring as we are wrapping up the year. It also keeps us historically attuned to the difficult journey to live up to our pledge to be a society that has “liberty and justice for all.”

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