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Comparisons Can Be Made Between American Freedom Riders and Central American Migrants

George Payne

Op/Ed by George Payne –

The analogy is not perfect. The Central American migrants heading north towards the U.S. border are desperate to escape violence and poverty by starting a new life in America. They are not making a political statement, teaching their fellow countrymen about democracy, or trying to shame their opponents into doing the right thing. They are, as I stated, just trying to get out of a hellish situation. But there are interesting points of similarity between the American Freedom Riders of the 60s and the so called “caravan” of over 7,000 migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

First and foremost, the language President Trump has used to describe these freedom seekers closely resembles the vitriol levied against Freedom Riders by white segregationists. Trump and his ilk have resorted to smearing them as “hardened criminals,” “bad people,” “very bad thugs and gang members,” and pawns of liberals. 60 years ago, white segregationists stoked the fears and paranoia of an entire country by calling the Freedom Riders law breakers, inciters of violence, communists, and even terrorists. Distorting or flat out dismissing the genuine reasons that compelled these brave men and women to risk their lives by traveling through hostile towns and cities in the South, they responded the same way that Trump and his supporters are responding to the migrants: fear mongering, propaganda, the use of martial and vigilante suppression, and the abandonment of constitutional law.

Yet just as the Freedom Riders were trying to break down an immoral system that kept African Americans in a place of bondage, today’s migrants are trying to escape a system that is no longer tenable. The threat of gang warfare, hunger and starvation, and the loss of economic and political rights have forced them to make the ultimate sacrifice for themselves and their families. They are not terrorists. They are not hoodlums. They are not crazed hoards rushing towards the border with evil intentions to destroy our way of life. They are people seeking freedom. They are, in their unique way, people seeking a way to promote justice.

Mark Samels, the Executive Producer of American Experience on PBS, once said: “The Freedom Riders were remarkable, fearless Americans. They were extraordinary, ordinary people . . . young people who took the reins of history and wouldn’t let go.”

The migrants seeking asylum in the United States are no different. They are remarkable, fearless Central Americans. They are extraordinary, ordinary people who are taking the reins of history and refusing to let go. They should be treated with respect and admiration rather than reviling insults and the looming threat of armed confrontation.

What we need is organization, a massive deployment of peacekeepers, social workers, and medical personnel (much of whom can be drawn from the military) to amass on the border. We will also need the enlisted help of the UN and other international agencies with experience handling refugee crises. But most importantly, we need leaders who are not afraid of responding to human catastrophe with creativity, intelligence, compassion, and nonviolence.

What we absolutely do not need is 15,000 US troops lined up on the border with loaded rifles ready to commit a massacre. That would not only be one of the most reprehensible tragedies in American history, but one of the most preventable and unnecessary acts of political violence to take place in the long struggle for freedom in any century.

George Cassidy Payne is an independent writer, social justice activist, and domestic violence counselor. He also teaches philosophy as an adjunct instructor at the State University of New York (SUNY).

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