Students gain new perspective on racial discrimination

Joey Butler
August 22, 2011

Alfredo Coelho Suárez of Colegio Ward in Buenos Aires, Argentina, discusses a point with John Seigenthaler following his presentation. Photo by Joey Butler.

A group of students from different countries has learned one thing they sadly have in common: Racial discrimination knows no boundaries.

At a joint meeting of the International Association of Methodist Schools, Colleges, & Universities and the National Association of Schools, Colleges, and Universities of The United Methodist Church, 33 students from four countries learned about civil rights struggles across the globe.

Held July 24-28 in Washington, D.C., the meeting brought together faculty and students from Methodist schools in 25 different countries to focus on how to build better leaders for the future. The students attended a separate program on social justice.

Ernest “Rip” Patton Jr. discusses his experience being imprisoned as a Freedom Rider in Jackson, Miss. Photo by Joey Butler.

One of the highlights was a presentation by two key figures of the U.S. civil rights movement. Ernest “Rip” Patton Jr. was part of the May 24, 1961, Greyhound Freedom Ride to Jackson, Miss. John Seigenthaler was a special assistant of the Kennedy administration, dispatched to the South to serve as intermediary between the Freedom Riders, the federal government and local segregationist officials.

Seigenthaler spoke of growing up privileged in the South, and being unaware of the harsh realities of life for African Americans at the time.

“I never heard it once from the pulpit or in school. We were blind to the reality of racism and afraid of change,” Seigenthaler said. “How could I be there and not have seen what was happening?” He described his efforts to get the Freedom Riders safely out of harm’s way but wound up in harm’s way himself: During a riot in Montgomery, Ala., he was hit over the head with a pipe and knocked unconscious.

Patton picked the story up, detailing his time with the other Freedom Riders in Parchman State Prison in Jackson after they were arrested for violating local segregation laws.

“It was a cinderblock building with no shade on it,” Patton said. “They’d turn on the air conditioner at night, and turn on the heat during the day. They put laxatives in the food and turned off the water so we couldn’t flush the toilet.”

One of the key tenets of the U.S. civil rights movement was embracing the nonviolent protest practices of Mohandas Gandhi. So, despite enduring such inhuman treatment, the Freedom Riders fought back in other ways.

Patton said the group took spirituals and changed the lyrics to fit the movement. The songs were a peaceful way of confronting segregationists. The guards didn’t like them to sing, so when they did, they’d take away their mattresses or toothbrushes. But they kept singing anyway.

Patton even led the student group in one of those freedom songs: “Ain’t gonna let no jailhouse turn me around. I’m gonna keep on walkin’, keep on talkin’, marchin’ up to Freedom Land.”

The following day was a presentation on the 1964 and 1965 Freedom Rides in Australia, which were inspired by the events in the United States. There, students from Sydney University traveled by bus to outlying areas to protest segregation practiced against Australia’s indigenous Aborigines. Similar to U.S. Jim Crow laws, Aborigines had few rights and were discriminated against for the color of their skin.

‘We can look at them as role models’

For several Latino students, these presentations hit close to home.

“There are a lot of similarities to our struggle as Latinos in the United States talking about discrimination when it comes to immigration issues and race issues in general,” said Jorge Granados, a 24-year-old student at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. “It was beautiful and inspirational to see there is precedent to our struggle and that it is possible to overcome.”

Karen Garzón, a student in the Hispanic Youth Leadership Academy at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, said learning about shared issues with other cultures strengthens the bond they already share as Christians.

"Even though we're from different countries, we worry about what goes on in other countries. We gather to help out our brothers and sisters in Christianity," she said. Cesar Linares said he learned about the Freedom Riders through a class on sociology, but hearing the story in person was different than just seeing a documentary.

“We can look at them as role models and see what they did back then, and it lets me know there is hope for change for the injustices that are going on now,” said Linares, 18, who will begin study at Texas Wesleyan in the fall.

Alfredo Coelho, a faculty member at Colegio Ward in Buenos Aires, Argentina, said he’d never heard of the Freedom Rides before but could empathize with the struggle.

“The Methodist Church in Argentina is engaged in the cause of human rights. We believe in a critical approach, by not only serving food to people but to try to identify the root causes of hunger, poverty, injustice – those things that are against the free nature of human beings,” he said.

“The Australian presentation was the switch,” said Michael McCord, director of Campus Ministry Resource Development and Training at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. “When they heard that story, they started saying, ‘Wow, this really does happen in more than one place.’”

Seigenthaler compared the 1960s civil rights movement to modern-day struggles like gay rights and Muslim relations.

“The attitudes are the same. Back then, preachers said God ordained segregation, and we’re here again. Fundamentalism governs reason,” he said.

The goal was for the students to see that issues they face in their home country are the same issues their peers face in other countries. The discussions around the presentations allowed them to form closer bonds.

“There was a lot of cross-cultural sharing that happened,” McCord said. “It was really powerful for them to see the fracture of humanity, that we all seem to be bent toward this discriminating behavior, but we all have our story and can learn from it. The students can now think of ways they can help to curb injustice.”

*Butler is editor of young adult content at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.


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