I was recently very inspired by my visit to the Museum of Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. There was a small exhibit called “Society’s Role” which examined the various roles that people take on during massive human rights crimes.
On one side, there are the Enablers (any one who profits from the crimes; ex: arms dealers, mafia, etc) and the Perpetrators (the people who carry out the crimes). On the other side are the victims. These are the people who are being targeted for violence.
Most of society is in the middle, and people are either Bystanders or Upstanders. Upstanders are people who help those who are being targeted, and sometimes take great personal risk to do so. They speak out, they organize and they intervene to prevent abuse. Bystanders are people who stand by and do nothing. By “looking away” they can appear to support the perpetrators.
We live in a time where there are massive human rights violations happening in our country. To name a few – mass incarceration of people of color, excessively harsh sentencing for people of color, police brutality and racial profiling, outdated and harsh detention and deportation laws, torture of detainees in the US “war on terrorism,” innocent civilians that are killed because of US “Foreign Policy,” the list goes on and on…
Many of these issues are complex, historically rooted and they are supported by huge interdependent systems like the prison industrial complex and the military industrial complex. However, I do believe that if most of the people in the middle moved from being a Bystander to an Upstander, with effort and time, we could topple these systems. I also believe that there is a moral obligation to do so.
The exhibition description included this text:
Standing between perpetrators and victims are the people who make up a larger society, both ordinary citizens and those in positions of authority and responsibility.
While systemic human rights crimes often start with a small, powerful group, they can only be carried out if others are persuaded or coerced to join in – or deliberately look the other way.
For ordinary people, the pressure to take part in abuse is real: those who resist often risk punishment and even death. History shows that entire societies – universities, religious organizations, businesses, hospitals, and judges – have either joined perpetrators or looked away…
This really resonates with me. I think most people in the middle are comfortable and just looking to get by. They think that they can’t affect change on a high level. However, as we discovered with early Civil Rights Movement, ordinary citizens can make a big impact, but we do have to be willing to give – give our time, give our money, and even take personal risks for causes we believe in. The systemic violence that occurs in this country would not be possible without the army of Bystanders that exist today.
Would you have been brave enough to be a Freedom Rider?
There was another exhibit at the museum displaying several mugshots of Freedom Riders (pictured below) plastered on a bus. For those of you who are not familiar… In the summer of 1961, hundreds of black and white Americans boarded buses together and drove throughout Southern states to challenge the local non-enforcement of segregation from US Supreme Court Decisions Morgan v. Virginia and Boynton v. Virginia.
According to these rulings, enforcing segregation (having different areas for serving white and colored people) on interstate buses and transportation spaces – including road side restaurants – was illegal. However, many southern states were not obeying the federal law.
So, groups of mixed black and white Freedom Riders boarded buses and rode through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to challenge the local non-enforcement of the interstate segregation in transit. The buses were bombed, the riders were beaten and arrested, some were even murdered. However, their willingness to challenge the status quo laid the foundation for the US Civil Rights Movement.
I hope that I would have been brave enough to be a Freedom Rider if I had the opportunity. I believe that I would have, and I wish there were an organization and a movement that created opportunities to organize with such an impact.
What about you? Would you have been brave enough to be a Freedom Rider?
What personal risks are you willing to take for a cause you believe in? What is one thing you can personally do to up your level of engagement in a cause you believe in this week?