As the generation of activists who pushed the civil rights movement forward passes from the scene, it at least gives us an opportunity to remember them one last time. Or, you know, at all. Even those people who pay attention to the social movements of the relatively recent past, social movements that living people remember, end up really remembering one or two people. When it comes to the Freedom Riders, those brave young people who attempted to desegregate interstate transportation in 1961, we basically remember John Lewis. This all may be inevitable–it’s hard to remember that many people and Lewis stayed in the spotlight his entire life. But there were other brave heroes of this movement. One who just died is Catherine Burke-Brooks and she deserves a day in the spotlight:
Dr. Catherine Burks-Brooks, a member of the Freedom Riders with a Nashville connection, has died at age 83. Burks-Brooks was among the Nashville students who joined the original 13 Freedom Riders in May 1961, after violent attacks by white mobs in Alabama.
She grew up in Birmingham, and “from a very young age, she developed a sharp tongue, a critical eye, and a strong sense of justice,” according to a family statement.
Burks-Brooks notably confronted Bull Connor, the segregationist Birmingham commissioner of public safety, after he arrested the students and drove them to the Alabama-Tennessee state line.
She discussed the encounter during a 2011 broadcast on Nashville Public Television.
“They threw our luggage out on the ground, and Bull pointed to a building and he said ‘There’s a train station over there and you all can get a train back to Nashville, Tennessee’ … And you know I couldn’t let him have the last word. Just as he was about to get in the car, I said, ‘We’ll see you back in Birmingham by high noon.’ ”
She did return and was among the Freedom Riders who traveled to Mississippi, where they were beaten and put in Parchman Farm prison for more than a month.
Burks-Brooks’ participation in the Freedom Rides led to her expulsion just 9 days before graduation from Tennessee A & I, now Tennessee State University. In 2008, TSU awarded honorary doctorates to Burks-Brooks and other expelled Freedom Riders.
During her lifetime as a teacher and entrepreneur, Burks-Brooks continued to be an activist and urged younger generations to stand up for social justice.
“Whatever you see that needs to be fixed, then that’s what you start concentrating on and find others who feel the same way. And if there’s two of you, then you look for a third and you go on and you get started. You get to moving. You do something! You don’t just sit and say, ‘Well, it’s just me, so I can’t do anything.’ ”
I think it’s worth noting here that for however hopeless we might feel (for good reason sometimes) about our current issues, what would have felt more hopeless than being a young southern Black person in 1961 knowing that anything you do to create social change might well get you killed? Lot of inspiration we can take from people like Burks-Brooks.
I also love that look of defiance in the mug shot.