The first Freedom Riders boarded buses headed for segregated southern states in 1961. These civil rights activists were trained in nonviolent protest and still knowingly risked their lives to violence. They took action to bring an end to the injustice of the Jim Crow laws still in effect in the south at that time.
My eleven-year-old daughter Laura and I talked about a then-twelve-year-old girl named Janie Forsyth who helped save, one at a time, some of the Freedom Riders from a burning bus, while adults perpetrated or stood by watching the violence. The young girl endured serious repercussions (from the Ku Klux Klan and others) within her southern community, all because she was the one who did the right thing. We talked about how sometimes doing a good thing might cause you more trouble at the time than you bargained for, but doing good is always right. Laura and I agreed that sometimes children know how to be heroes better than adults.
We also talked about the story of a former KKK member and the African American man he beat until bloody as he disembarked from a bus during the Freedom Rides. When the police asked the African American man if he wanted to press charges, he said, “No. We’re not here to cause trouble. We’re here for people to love each other.” Almost half a century later (in 2009), the former Klan member who had beaten another man because of the color of his skin, tracked his victim down so that he could apologize. He didn’t find a victim though. The African American Freedom Rider had since become a member of Congress. The old white man said that throughout the years he reflected back upon those words of love time and time again; they never left him. Congressman John Lewis held the hand of the man who had beaten him while they told their story on Oprah.
Congressman Lewis suffered a serious wrong and nearly fifty years without an apology, one he might never have gotten and the only one he got after the many injustices that were done to him throughout his lifetime as a civil rights activist. Yet even left bloody and beaten, in that moment he offered back only love—and that love grew to change a heart that most would have written off as impossibly lost. Not only did Congressman Lewis offer love at the time, he did not allow anger or hatred to fester in his heart in the following years. He continued on giving his life to the service of our country.
Congressman John Lewis taught Laura and me about what it means to be an unsung hero, and that being a true hero has two parts. There is the heroic act itself and then acting with grace and love in the aftermath, even or especially when the aftermath isn't a parade.
You spoke up and stood up for someone else when nobody else did. You protected another person who needed it and you shined a light every place where there had been darkness. You did it for reasons and in a manner that your family and those closest to what happened know for sure that your courage and actions touched lives in a positive way.
And then you experienced more trouble than ever should have come your way because of it. At times you felt scrutinized, questioned, and criticized—because you were by some people. You wanted to feel that others were standing by you—but what you got was someone standing on you.
All the while your family and a number of others (you know who they are) were with you, believing in you and applauding you. But even people who believe in God don’t always feel his presence when they need it most. I hope that you have faith that even when you aren’t seeing it or feeling it, love is right there with you, next to you, and inside of you at all times.
I know that you will continue to face and rise up to meet challenges, and in the aftermath act with grace and love. I know that you will figure out how to do that, even when it seems like it would be the hardest thing to pull off. I am proud of you. I love you.
Laura, you are a hero and today I sing for you.
(Photo credit: Congressman Lewis and Elwin Wilson from Oprah.com.)