Tuesday, March 31, 2009

At Last, a “Good News” Story

By William Fisher

Because mainstream media covers fewer and fewer civil liberties stories by the day, I do what I can to report on this critical subject. Given what the Bush Administration did to trash our Constitution over the past eight years, most of what I write is depressing. And my friends are constantly asking me: Can’t you find something cheerful to write about?

So once or twice a year, I search for enough positive information to write a “good news” column.

This is my first of 2009.

Every once in a while, I go to the web to read stories from the newspaper that, in 1950, suspended its good judgment and hired me as a cub reporter. Later, the Daytona Beach (Florida) News-Journal sent me to the county seat, a little town called DeLand, to run their bureau there.

Now, DeLand was familiar territory to me. I did my undergraduate work at Stetson University in that town.

The Stetson I knew was populated by a combination of Southern Baptist fundamentalists and uninformed and uninterested sons and daughters of the rich -- Bubbas and wannabe Southern Belles. How fundamentalist? Well, when I got to be editor of the college weekly newspaper, I was summoned to the office of the Dean of Students and told that I couldn’t print the word “dance,” because dancing led to pregnancy (we compromised on “frolic”).

When I arrived in DeLand to begin my studies, I was “rushed” by most of the many fraternities on campus – until they found out I was Jewish. Suddenly, the attention dried up. It was like turning off a light-switch!

So for four years, I remained the only Jew in the school (there were also three Catholics, out of total enrollment of some 1,500 students). Many of the students had never seen a Jew before I appeared, and I believe they were expecting a menacing creature with horns.

The DeLand I knew was, like most Southern towns of that era, thoroughly Jim Crow -- a combination of Babbitt and Elmer Gantry. The civil rights movement hadn’t caught anyone’s attention yet, and that was still the case when I came back to this central Florida redneck town to cover the cops and the courts.

My most vivid memories of that time were watching the local sheriff and his deputies carrying out their Saturday night raids into “colored town.” Their mission was to arrest anything moving that was black. The sheriff and his merry men had a great incentive: They were on the so-called “fee system” in which their paychecks were determined mostly by the cash bonds posted by the people they arrested. The more folks arrested, the more bonds got posted, and the more money they got. The ones who couldn’t post bonds were sent to jail.

I got into a heap of trouble writing about these “Saturday Night Raids” for the News-Journal (like get-out-of-town-or-else threats). But my old paper had the courage to publish them, often on page one.

I give you all this ancient background so that you might be able to understand my total disbelief when I read this headline in News-Journal Online:

“Stetson Students Re-create Freedom Rides.”

Here are the salient parts of the story I read, written by staff writer John Bozzo.

Following in the path of the 1961 civil rights Freedom Rides was an eye-opening experience for Stetson University student Rebecca Hallum.

"It really changes your perspective," said the 21-year-old political science-psychology major, one of 19 students from Stetson and its College of Law who re-created the bus ride last July.

"For me, it's hard to ever understand being treated with any sort of inequality because I'm a white middle-class female," Hallum said. "To see what these people had to go through simply to ride a bus was inspiring."

During the weeklong civil rights seminar, students followed the road traveled by the 1961 Freedom Riders, who rode buses in the South challenging segregation on interstate transportation.

Students met with civil rights activists including Allen Cason, a native of Orlando who participated in the Freedom Ride 48 years ago.

"He had an incredible story," Hallum said. "He was actually imprisoned after the ride. He was in solitary confinement for about a month and lived basically on bread and water."

The students also visited important sites, such as the National Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.

Many of the original Freedom Riders made out their wills before their rides. Riders were attacked in Birmingham and Montgomery bus stations.

Hallum saw a small marker outside Anniston, Ala., where a mob burned one of the first Freedom Ride buses. More should be done to commemorate the site, she said.

"It was overwhelming," said Hallum, who is looking forward to seeing the documentary. "It's hard to think that we take these small things for granted. To think they had to go through this incredible effort and go through so much violence."

Hallum said she was impressed how the former Freedom Riders were humble about their experiences.

"None of them were bitter," she said. "They knew they were doing the right thing."

When I was working in DeLand, it would be another decade before Earl Warren’s 1960 Supreme Court would ban segregation in interstate travel facilities – at bus stations and restaurants as well as on buses. A year later, the first Freedom Riders set off on journeys that would change our history.

And at the Stetson I knew, students being even the slightest bit interested in the situation of their black brothers and sisters would have been unthinkable. Their fellow students would have been outraged. Ostracism – even death threats – would surely have followed.

But here were kids from my alma mater re-creating one of the truly transformative events in American history.

True, only 19 students participated. But half a century ago, there wouldn’t have been one – and the notion of a weeklong civil rights seminar would have been considered delusional.

Today, Stetson has not only changed and adapted, it has actually enrolled minority students – 105 non-resident aliens, 336 Hispanics, 72 Asians, and 190 African-Americans – out of a total enrollment of just over 3,000.

That’s 190 African-Americans!

So my first “good news” of 2009 is that positive change is still alive and well – even in redneck central Florida.

I wonder how the Stetson kids feel about our new President?