Freedom ride anniversary sparks questions about today’s young people

By Alan Bean

Last week, Oprah Winfrey shared her stage with 178 veterans of the 1961 Freedom Rides.   There they stood, black and white, mostly in their 70s, looking proud and maybe just a little embarrassed. 

The fiftieth anniversary of the freedom rides has sparked more retrospection than introspection.  Last summer, I discussed the freedom rides in detail on the eve of the trial of Curtis Flowers.  How much had changed, I asked, since thousands of heroic young people flocked to the South to challenge segregation laws and, more often than not, pay a visit to Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison (where, incidentally, Curtis Flowers now resides).  The post has received 4,000 hits (that’s a lot by the modest standards of this blog), suggesting that interest in the freedom riders remains high.

An article in the Washington Post poses the obvious question: If all these young people were willing to place their lives on the line in 1961, why aren’t today’s young people demonstrating a similar dedication to justice?  Few real answers emerge.  American schools have essentially resegregated and nobody seems to care.  Jackson, Mississippi was the primary destination of the freedom riders.  In 1961, the Post article reports, Jackson was only one-third black, now, largely thanks to white flight, the school system is overwhelmingly black. 

Most black people appear to be willing to live with the resegregation of the public school system so long as black students have access to higher education and professional advancement.  The article cites plenty of success stories and suggests that young people today don’t need to lay their bodies on the line because the kids who rode the buses back in 1961 accomplished all the goals that matter.

But Lew Zuckman, a white freedom rider from New York City, cuts to the heart of the issue: “Things are demonstrably worse for young blacks,” he states flatly.  “It is still shocking to see the numbers of young black men that are in jail today.  We’ve got rid of some cosmetic issues that were important, but things haven’t changed that much.”

How does a white guy from the Big Apple get that perspective?  He runs a non-profit organization that works with youth. 

So, if mass incarceration has become our new Jim Crow, why aren’t we seeing a multi-racial, youth-led movement to end the war on drugs and insist on workable alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders?

I can think of two reasons.  The article in the Post notes that even Martin Luther King Jr. thought the first wave of freedom riders were pushing the envelope too far.  Nonetheless, the young people who flocked to the South were building on a foundation that King and company had laid for them.  They had a clear analysis of the problem (segregation laws are unconstitutional and must be rescinded) and they had a non-violent strategy to work with. 

Today, few young people in America have the faintest notion that mass incarceration exists or that it is contrary to America’s deepest values.   The problem is particularly severe among white young people.

This is why Friends of Justice is taking our team of summer interns to Mississippi this summer; we want them to see the issue of mass incarceration as a civil rights issue. 

Simple ignorance provides half an explanation.  But there is a second reason why today’s young people are disengaged from the justice movement (such as it is).  Few opinion leaders within earshot of today’s young people are sharing a compelling vision of the common good. 

The civil rights movement was led by Protestant, Catholic and Jewish religious leaders inspired by the justice tradition they found in their scriptures.  True, they were taking these traditions to places they had never been taken before, but as David Chappell has argued in The Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, they were tapping into resources that have been inspiring young people for thousands of years. 

Black southern activists got strength from old-time religion,” Chappell explains, “and white supremacists failed, at the same moment, to muster the cultural strength that conservatives traditionally get from religion.  Who succeeded in the great cultural battle over race and rights in the 1950s and 1960s?  Those who could use religion to inspire solidarity and self-sacrificial devotion to the cause.  Who did not have such religious power?  Two groups:  those who failed–the segregationists–and those who succeeded only by attaching themselves to the religious protesters–the liberals.”

Notre Dame sociologist, Christian Smith argues persuasively that the contemporary American religious establishment is poorly positioned to inspire “self-sacrificial devotion” to any purpose that transcends the subjective desires of the individual (tragically, the black church is no exception in Smith’s mind).  A national study of 2400 American teenagers found that when asked open-ended questions about religion, respondents used the phrase “feel happy” well over 2,000 times.  Also popular were phrases like “feeling good about myself,” “feeling better about myself,” and “feeling personally fulfilled”.   In contrast, traditional religious ideas rarely came up.  Only twelve respondents used the word “repentance”, only three used the word “grace”, “the kingdom of God” was mentioned five times (three of them by Mormon youth), “justice” was mentioned twice and expressions like “self-discipline”, “working for social justice”, and “justification” didn’t come up at all.

We observed in our interviews that at least some contemporary teenagers seem to live in what we might call a ‘morally insignificant universe.’  In such a universe, moral commitments, decisions, obligations, and actions have little if any larger meaning, purpose, significance, or consequence; that universe is, in short, a morally empty reality . . . In a morally significant universe, one’s decisions and practices and deeds bear the burden and reflect the significance of a much bigger story or system of import.  In such a reality, moral temptations are serious business, as choices for right and wrong reverberate far beyond our own lives and affirm or violate a larger cosmic order. 

For many traditionally religious people, Smith says, a morally significant universe entailed “a long and hard historical human struggle for freedom, equality, justice, or sisterhood and brotherhood in which one expends one’s life to play a small but perhaps notable role in moving history forward.”  The significance of such a universe “is not derived from one’s own life.  Significance rather emanates to selves from the very order of things, the creation, the cosmos, the human story, or the light and force of history.  One’s own single life finds its significance not in relation to itself, but by becoming connected to this larger moral order, by living a life in tune with and reflecting that order.”

Christian Smith is convinced that mass-consumer capitalism is the primary moral force in contemporary America.  “”People normally think of the economy and religion as two separate spheres of life that affect each other very little,” he says.  “In fact, however, American religion and spirituality, including teenagers’ involvement in them, may be profoundly shaped by American mass-consumer capitalism.  Capitalism is not merely a system for the efficient production and distribution of goods and services; it also incarnates and promotes a particular moral order, an institutionalized normative worldview comprising and fostering particular assumptions, narratives, commitments, beliefs, values, and goals . . . mass-consumer capitalism constitutes the human self in a very particular way: as an individual, autonomous, rational, self-seeking, costpbenefit-calculating consumer.”

Smith is right.  In fact, the triumph of mass-consumer capitalism (what Robert Reich calls “Supercapitalism”) is reflected in the punitive and fearful consensus apart from which American mass incarceration would be unthinkable. 

The 178 people who appeared on stage with Oprah last week inhabited a morally significant universe.  They were exceptional, of course, but they were also part of a movement much bigger than themselves, a movement rooted in s shimmering vision of the common good.  And that is precisely what is lacking today.  It isn’t just that young people live in isolated, radically individualistic, consumer-oriented and almost totally self-referential worlds; the big problem is that hardly anyone, young or old, secular or religious, is sketching the outline of a morally significant universe. 

Fortunately, there are thousands of exceptions to the general rule.  All they need is a gentle push in the right direction.

2 thoughts on “Freedom ride anniversary sparks questions about today’s young people

  1. Individualists, with a drive to satisfy their own desires, are ideal consumers. Today’s teenagers have watched much, much more TV than those Freedom Riders. Today, 2/3 of infants and toddlers watch 2 hours per day of TV or more.

  2. Excellent piece Alan! I agree with both Christian Smith and you, that mass consumer capitalism has bred a warped moral order among our youth and across the entire society. Luckily, we have people like you who challenge us all to see another way. Thank you.
    Sandra Jones

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