Remembering MLK: Riding to Freedom

January 16, 2012

in Travel Essays

  • SumoMe

“White Only.”


What did these signs above the restrooms in the train station in the Deep South say to me? And what did they say to America? Separate, but equal? Fifty years later I revisited those questions.

People Without a Lick of Sense

No one but mad dogs, Englishmen, and Lutherans go out in the August noon-time sun in Miami Beach. And even mad dogs and Englishmen wouldn’t deliberately plan to hold an international convention for teenagers in that city when the stifling heat and humidity wraps around you like a dripping-wet hair-shirt.

Getting There

Getting to Miami wasn’t “half the fun.” First, I had to wash a million cars and scrub four million white-wall tires. Then I had to tie up at least 50,000 bundles of newspapers for “recycling” (a word that had not as yet been invented) and stack them in neat piles inside a garage. This raised money to help pay my travel costs, and those of the other kids from Ballard First Lutheran Church who would make the trip to Miami with me.

Finally, I had to travel thousands of miles, riding the rails through tedious days and nights, to reach that South Florida rendezvous of sweaty, adolescent bodies.

Somehow, life’s little tribulations seem much greater in the mind of a fourteen year-old than reality would warrant.

Crossing The Great Divide

In 1961, racial segregation enveloped Southern society much like the kudzu vine that covered the countryside where it resided. But in Seattle, it was much more subtle. Adults knew it existed; white kids didn’t even know what it was.

In August of that year, along with hundreds of other Luther Leaguers, I boarded a Northern Pacific train and crossed the Continental Divide on the way to Chicago. From there, the B&O line took us on to Washington, D.C., from where other railroads carried us down the Eastern Seaboard to Miami Beach. We had no idea that at the same time other Americans known as “Freedom Riders” were embarking on dangerous journeys toward a New America, cutting across racial and state lines, risking their lives in the process.

Life’s A Beach

Swimming in the murky waters of Puget Sound near Seattle, even in summer, was a usually short-lived, bone-chilling experience. But the Gulf Stream swirling past Miami Beach created an inviting, linger-a-long-while, soak in a salty bathtub.

Besides taking a dip in the ocean, there were three other, not particularly effective, ways to deal with the 90+ temperatures and humidity: Be bored to death hanging around your air-conditioned hotel; be even more bored sitting in the air-conditioned Miami convention center listening to endless yammering about Man and God; or ride between both in an air-conditioned taxi.

Perspiration being the better part of valor, and having been dumped by Eva, my Norwegian-born girlfriend from church shortly after we arrived in Miami, I tried to skip as many of the convention sessions as possible to roam around town with my then good-buddy, Rodney. Decades later, I don’t remember if I missed the address by a man whose influence on the Civil Rights Movement has just been commemorated by a new memorial on Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Mall: Martin Luther King.

Riding To Freedom

My grandmother’s farm in Northern Idaho was the farthest point that I had traveled east from Seattle before my three-thousand odd-mile coast-to-coast journey. And even though I was accompanied by several adults, it was the longest time I had been away from my parents, ever, so it was a ride to temporary freedom for me.

The first shocking revelation that all was not right in America came when we saw Chicago’s even worse version of Seattle’s Skid Road, just a block or two west of the upscale-for-its-time Conrad Hilton Hotel on South Michigan Avenue where we spent  a couple of nights sleeping in real beds in a room that was not in constant motion. The next was when we stopped short of Washington, D.C., after a poor soul committed suicide by jumping in front of our speeding train. The last would come when we stopped for breakfast during the final leg south to Miami and discovered that not all of our countrymen were allowed to share public “facilities.”

During our brief visit to the national’s capitol, Eva, Rodney and I strolled up the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial to see “Honest Abe” sitting on what seemed to be God’s Own Throne. He had freed the slaves, but in doing so, had torn the country into two contentious fragments still not yet fully re-united in mind and spirit by the time of our arrival at his feet nearly a half-century after the beginning of the Civil War.

Over fifty years has passed since I saw those divisive signs of racial inequality on my cross-country odyssey between the northwest and southeast tips of the United States.  Today, well into the 21st century, are we One National Under God, or two?  Ask me again in 2061.

(Dick Jordan wrote more about his “First Big Trip” away from home on the occasion of the  2011 Martin Luther King national holiday. This story was inspired by  the PBS documentary on the Freedom Riders which aired last year.)

Watch Freedom Riders on PBS. See more from American Experience.



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