Today marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Freedom Rides, that heroic movement of young men and women that contributed mightily to breaking the back of legal segregation in the South.
Preceded by the great struggles against lynchings and Klan terror in the earlier part of the century, the campaigns to free the Scottsboro defendants, Angelo Herndon and other victims of hatred in the 1930s, along with the sit-ins and boycotts protesting segregation in the North during the 1940s and 1950s, the Freedom Rides helped achieve a turning point in the battle for democracy.
The civil rights legislation of the 1960s remains one of its enduring achievements. Broadly speaking, the election of Barack Obama a half century later would not have been possible but for the sacrifices of students who went South braving jail, beatings and even, as in the case of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, death.
Today however, these victories and those that preceded them are under intense assault. The Republican extreme right seems determined to roll back history and do away with many of the programs the struggles of the Freedom Riders helped give rise to, programs like Medicaid and Medicare that benefited all Americans.
At the same time, more quietly perhaps but no less steadily, advances toward economic equality have been severely set back by the Great Recession and the ravages of the capitalist economy. The sub-prime mortgage crisis has wreaked havoc in black and brown communities, unemployment in those communities is twice the national average and hunger and poverty are rising. In addition, the public sector, the single greatest contributor to gains in jobs and wage equality for black and brown Americans, is experiencing the brunt of the ruling class assault.
Make no mistake: this calculated attempt to break the back of organized labor, while affecting all workers, has deeply racist implications.
Among the biggest victims of the crisis today are our country's youth and students, who face high unemployment and growing cutbacks in education and opportunity. Across the country teachers are being laid off in public schools, and university tuition is rising. In response a wave of protests, sit-ins and marches is occurring at high schools and on college campuses.
Two years ago Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers union, called for a new civil rights movement among today's youth and students, to focus on the right to a job. Gerard suggested a new militancy is needed to meet the scale of the crisis.
Gerard hit the mark. Today's young Freedom Riders are rising in the streets, campuses and workplaces all over the country. United with the labor, civil and immigrant rights, women's and LGBT movements it can grow to be a force capable of not only stopping the Republican right, but making achievable advanced democratic reforms like ending economic racism.
The first stop along this Freedom Ride is in November 2012.