National Opinions

New Freedom Riders: Where do we go from here?

NEW ORLEANS -- And so this is how it ends.

The bus, half a century overdue, rolls to a stop in the middle of the street before a throng of cheering, clapping humanity. Fifty years after the first busload of Freedom Riders set out from Washington en route to this city, only to be stymied by violence; 50 years after hundreds of other young people boarded dozens of other buses to take up the mission of testing segregation ordinances in the South only to be stopped by violence and mass arrests, this is the first Freedom Riders bus ever to make it here.

Five veterans of that revolutionary, evolutionary spring and summer are on the bus -- Rip Patton, Bob and Helen Singleton, Charles Person, Joan Mulholland -- and they step off into the kind of pandemonium only this city can make: a brass band and cheers and prayers and songs and tumult.

They are followed by the 2011 Student Freedom Riders, a group of college kids who have joined this commemorative voyage.

And so this is how it ends, and it is a good enough ending, perhaps -- activism vindicated, progress gratefully noted, freedom songs in the air, praise the Lord and pass the gumbo. But that ending leaves a question hanging: What now? Where do we go from here?

The kids might have an answer. You see, the 40 students PBS chose from more than a thousand applicants to take this ride and help promote its "Freedom Riders" documentary are not simply students. Rather, they are student activists, many of them already engaged on a variety of pressing issues.

Stephanie Burton is concerned about hunger, Francisco Diaz about immigration reform, Michael Tubbs about social justice, Rajlakshmi De about empowering women. Several days before they arrived here, they organized "teach-ins" to educate one another about their various areas of expertise and concern. The result: a resolution, agreed to on the bus en route to this city, to formalize their association, meeting twice a year electronically to share ideas, provide support, network, organize, make change.

They seem to have what the Freedom Riders had, what Helen Singleton indelicately but accurately calls the willingness to "get pissed off" about a thing and do something about it.

It is difficult to say when that willingness was lost in us, but that it was lost seems self-evident. With the notable exception of the tea partiers, one seldom sees signs of civic engagement -- much less evolution and revolution -- these days in the body politic. No, the signs one sees most are for iPads, iPhones and HDTVs, shiny baubles that swing before our eyes and hypnotize righteous discontent into a state of somnolence.

Evolution becomes a commodity (iPad 2 anyone?), revolution seeks a corporate sponsor. And we learn to live, as did the generation before the Freedom Riders, with things as they are, to make peace with inequity, to shrug and accept.

One fears to make too much of a pact among college students. It could become nothing. It could become everything. But the gesture itself is gladdening, suggesting as it does presence of mind, kids who are awake and aware, and willing. And, maybe even able.

Arms linked, they dance to freedom songs that were old when their parents were young. This is how it ends.

And also, perhaps, how it begins.