This Time They Said, ‘We’re Going’

Two weeks ago I wrote about the documentary “Stonewall Uprising” and the line from a police official that caught my attention:

“This time they said, ‘We’re not going.’”

That’s how Seymour Pine of the New York Police Department’s Morals Division described the raid he led on the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969, and the unprecedented refusal of the gay men in the bar to hang their heads in shame and go silently into the paddy wagons. The “Stonewall riots” that resulted are generally regarded as the beginning of the gay rights movement in the United States.

Last night on PBS’s “American Experience,” I saw another excellent documentary, “Freedom Riders,” about the white and black civil rights activists who boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses in May 1961 to travel through the Deep South, sitting together and dining together during stops. For someone too young to remember the Freedom Rides, it was a shocking and eye-opening film. Watching the violence directed at these “outside agitators” – a bus firebombed, people beaten, a mob threatening to burn a packed church – as police and elected officials stood by and let it happen, brings home the plight of black Americans before the civil rights revolution. And may also shed some light on the question of whether America is more or less free than it used to be.

At the Stonewall Inn, gays were ordered into paddy wagons, and “This time they said, ‘We’re not going.’” Without planning to, they started a social revolution. The Freedom Riders planned carefully. They took training in nonviolence. When the first Riders encountered violence throughout Alabama, other young people decided, in the words of Diane Nash, who had been a student at Fisk University, “It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence.” So she and other young Nashvillians decided to get on buses and continue the effort. John Seigenthaler, a Nashvillian who was working for Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, called Nash and said, in effect, Don’t go to Alabama. It’s too dangerous. People will get killed. And Nash responded that the students had all made out their wills, knew what they were facing, and were getting on the buses in the morning.

Eventually federal marshals got the Freedom Riders out of Alabama and into Mississippi, where they were arrested and sent to the notorious Parchman Farm penitentiary to do hard labor on a chain gang. And then yet more Riders, from all over the country, got on buses and headed to Jackson, Mississippi. It’s an incredible story of courage and conflict, one that demonstrates the value of nonviolent resistance in dramatizing moral issues. And although they didn’t quite use this phrase, I kept thinking that, in spite of cautionary advice from their parents and from the Kennedy administration,

This time they said, “We’re going.”