I turned on Oprah the other day, more as background, not intending to watch. ... Oprah was promoting the PBS documentary “Freedom Riders,” which aired on affiliates across the country on May 16. by Linda Tarrant-Reid
NNPA News Service
I turned on Oprah the other day, more as background, not intending to watch, but certainly to listen as I went about my business. There she was, the media mogul, counting down the last days of her 25 years as the “Talk Queen” on her Wednesday, May 4 program. Looking at Oprah standing in the middle of the darkened studio introducing the guests, I could sense that something was different; there was a reverence to her tone.
James Lawson, Then
Born: September 22, 1928, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Grew up in Massillon, Ohio. Son and grandson of Methodist ministers. Joined CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in 1948, his freshman year at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. Withdrew his draft registration in 1949, later served 13 months in federal prison. Was a missionary to India 1953-56.
Then: Methodist minister and divinity student in Nashville; in 1959 began a weekly nonviolence workshop, from which emerged the Nashville student movement and, in large part, SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Expelled from Vanderbilt University Divinity School in 1960 for his activities as a leader of the Nashville sit-ins.
James Lawson, Now
Since then: Pastor, Centenary Methodist Church, Memphis, 1962–74; helped organize the Meredith March in Mississippi in 1966; head of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike committee in 1968. Pastor of the Holman United Methodist Church, Los Angeles, 1974-99. Named Vanderbilt’s Distinguished Alumnus of the Year in 2005; has been a visiting professor at the Divinity School since 2006.
Just as she said those words, the studio lights came up to reveal the Freedom Riders, amid the applause she continued in an emotion-choked voice.
“Join me in welcoming 178 survivors of the 1961 Freedom Rides.”
The camera panned to a close-up of Oprah wiping a tear from her eye.
The faces of the Freedom Riders, the once young, eager black and white, men and women crusaders who embarked on a journey to change America, were different from the black and white mug shots of them in their 20s and 30s that flashed across the screen. They were now in their late 60s and 70s, with graying hair, faces lined with experience and some were even in wheelchairs, but nonetheless the strength, courage, and pride in a mission that changed history was still visible on their expressive faces. Oprah was promoting the PBS documentary “Freedom Riders,” which aired on affiliates across the country on May 16.
Now, that’s the kind of reality TV I’m talking about.
We, as parents, should make it our job to watch programs such as this with our kids to help them understand the life and death struggle that individuals endured to secure our equal rights. This revolution happened right here in America, before Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen. The documentary of the young people who traveled through the South by bus and rail from May to November in 1961 integrating interstate travel facilities is the reality TV we should be watching, not the “Real Housewives” franchise where women act badly in response to manufactured situations that cause conflict or Dumb Trump and his boardroom shenanigans, where contestants survive artificial challenges so they won’t be fired. Give me a break!
Bring on the stories of the real people recounting their extraordinary experiences.
John Lewis was a 19-year-old student when he joined the Freedom Riders. Already an activist in the civil rights movement, Lewis would go on to become the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a speaker at the March on Washington, in Washington, D.C., in 1963, and an organizer of the Selma to Montgomery March, in Alabama in 1965. He was elected to Congress in 1986 and is serving his 12th term as the U.S. Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District.
I’ve noticed recently that African-American history is no longer confined to February. Hallelujah! It’s about time the shackles that limit programs about African-American history to 28 or 29 days in the wintertime are falling away. PBS’ “American Experience” series, the History Channel, and other networks have boldly programmed where other programmers have dared to go. Just this past month, TV viewers were able to watch not only the “Freedom Riders,” but also “Roads to Memphis,” focusing on the movements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray, and “Soundtrack for a Revolution,” the history of the civil rights movement through its music.
In April and May, historian Skip Gates hosted a four-part series, “Black In Latin America,”in which he explored the history and culture of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Cuba; Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. The great news about all of these programs is that they aired on PBS, which often reruns its shows, so check your local TV listings for possible encore airdates in your area. Much of its African-American programming is accompanied by online resources including primary source materials, lesson plans, teacher’s guides, reading lists, interactive media, as well as downloadable films or trailers of the documentaries.
Reality TV means different things to different people. You can either be entertained by brain-numbing antics of people seeking their 15 minutes of fame or learn about people and events that have made our future better. There are many opportunities for us as parents and mentors to share historical events in a medium that is accessible and informative. Knowing and understanding our history certainly builds self-esteem, but it can also be a springboard that launches our young people on the path to success.
(Special to the NNPA from The Westchester County Press)