Freedom Ride Journal: Day Four
But before the voices can swell, before the whispers can become angry shouts, Abelardo walks to the front of the bus. There are other people on this bus, he says, our African American brothers and sisters. Up until today, they've been largely ignored, their stories, their reasons for being on the Freedom Ride, going unheard. At rallies, he says, it's only the immigrants that speak.
And at rallies, sometimes it's only the immigrants that receive warm welcomes. Annie, an African American from Chicago, sees people stare at her Freedom Ride T-shirt, lean into each other and say, "What are they doing here?"
I know it hurts her, this subtle discrimination on a ride working to erase racism with every mile traveled. The irony isn't that prejudice is dancing under tables in union halls and church pews, but that African Americans know injustice by heart -- they made protest an art form. They're here in solidarity, bringing expertise in their backpacks. They're the best allies immigrants could have.
Riders on our bus know this, and so does Abelardo, who asks them to come forward to share their stories with us.
Barney gets up first, as if he's been waiting for this, and I'm surprised. He's usually a quiet man, and it's easy to forget he sits two rows behind me. He reminds us of the segregation of the South, of the bathrooms designated for whites and blacks. He worked on a railroad, where every black man was called "George" after the owner of the railroad company. Someone asks him if things have changed since the 60s. He says of course they have, but not everything.
Bobbe Hellom is already waiting in the aisle before Barney is done talking. He wears a derby hat covered with pins he collects from every stop. He takes it off to speak. He tells us that when he was growing up, he got good at staying in his place, and that no matter what his age, he was referred to as "boy" or "uncle." But he could also be sneaky, he says, winking. I can imagine that. He's 68 years old and still has an impish grin.
Bobbe has seen his co-workers affected by immigration laws; he works at a hotel in Chicago. He's angry about the treatment of immigrants, and he points his finger fiercely when he talks. It's unjust and unfair, he says, and he's going to be fighting all the way to Washington. He's the backbone for other Freedom Riders, he tells me, and if they fall backward, he's here to prop them up.
The treatment of immigrants has also hit Paulette Robinson close to home. It was only a few weeks ago that women she worked with were turned over to INS. She tells me it's her civil duty as an American, and as a human being, to get involved to change immigration laws.
Paulette has four different ethnic backgrounds: Native American, Jamaican, Cuban and Haitian. When she was 13 years old, a woman called her a half-breed and spit in her face.
The minute Phyllis McCury heard about the Freedom Ride, she had to be a part of it. Phyllis was too young to be involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, but she remembers her grandfather telling stories about his experience. She can feel him with her on this ride, and as she talks, she pauses and shuts her eyes.
People have asked Phyllis why she's on the Immigrant Workers' Freedom Ride. After all, she's not an immigrant. But in her calm and deliberate way, Phyllis explains that everyone's an immigrant in this country. She says the Freedom Ride is really about freedom, equal rights, love and family. She tells them she's part of history in the making, once again.
When the open mic session on the bus is over, when everyone has had a chance to speak, Angel Castillo, one of our bus leaders, takes the mic and says in both English and Spanish, when we decide to stop seeing the color of each other's skin on this bus, society will too.
Megan Tady is riding the bus from Chicago to Washington DC.