by Gael O’Brien

December 2011 brings to a close the official commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders.  While tolerance, justice and equality in American life and globally continue to beg for champions, the culture the Freedom Riders created offers inspiration on ways people can work together to foster change in society as well as organizations – using mutual respect and support to create a spirit of community united by common purpose, ingredients also found in common purpose companies.

Freedom Riders_ by snakepliskens via Flickr_ 5417130560_2fc7c72b58_bThe Freedom Riders were primarily college students, with a mix of clergy, teachers, artists, journalists, housewives, civil rights activists, and many other professions. Like other movements, a cross section of races, ages, and geography.

The distinguishing common denominator here for Freedom Riders is an overriding, compelling sense of purpose, infused with passion, courage, discipline, resilience, and a strategy of nonviolent direct action.

Their focus? The 1960 Supreme Court ruling that segregation was unconstitutional in interstate travel. From May 1961 until December 1961, the Freedom Riders traveled interstate bus and rail routes in the south to test whether desegregation was being followed.

As we’ve read about or seen in the PBS documentary Freedom Riders that aired in May, 2011 (still available to view free online)  the riders endured firebombing, savage beatings and demeaning treatment — chronicled by national media along the routes. They also tolerated harsh prison conditions. Through all of this, they never deviated from their commitment to meet violence with nonviolence.

In November 1961, the “colored only,” “white only” signs came down; lunch counters, rest rooms, and interstate travel desegregated.

The Freedom Riders had won their battle, giving a huge impetus to the Civil Rights movement.

Mission and Community

While the tactics piece has certainly been employed since by social justice advocates, the enduring legacy of the Freedom Riders lies in something more ethereal – the possibility that an organization can create a spirit, a common purpose and passion that can infuse followers, turning them into a community capable of doing great things.

Listening to the Freedom Riders reminiscences – in the documentary and the forums that have occurred around the country – a picture is painted where mission and community inextricably became one. You can tangibly feel why they were so successful; what they built reignites inspiration 50 years later.

Glenda Gaither Davis, who became a Freedom Rider at 18, says of her experience,  “There was that underlying togetherness that stood all the tests we were put through. We sang, and we talked, and we prayed, and … we worked together regardless of where we came from. And we had a common cause … to make things equal for all people.”

Ernest “Rip” Patton, Jr. spoke recently at a community forum particularly for teachers and students in the Los Angeles area. It was sponsored by Facing History and Ourselves,  an organization that supports teachers in helping students link history to moral choices. Patton, who had been a student at Tennessee State 50 years ago, described how the Freedom Riders seamlessly worked together to integrate lunch counters in Nashville.

Students asked what it had felt like to face the risks he had. The large theatre auditorium felt more like a living room as he answered.

He was arrested after his ride to Jackson, Mississippi, and sent to the formidable Parchman Penitentiary. He was one of more than 300 Freedom Riders incarcerated there that summer and fall. To keep up their spirits in dealing with the oppressive guards, he said, he and other prisoners sang all the time, which had the added benefit of irritating the guards.

Freedom riders James Lawson (who taught the principles of Gandhian nonviolence), Ralph Abernathy, James Farmer and Diane Nash were among the leaders of the group. However, because the byproduct of everyone’s efforts was to create a community of mutual support and strength, everyone had a role as a leader.

Creating Common Purpose

There are many aspects of the culture created by the Freedom Riders that can inspire both organizations and companies that seek to bring out the best in their people.

  • Training was a top priority. Freedom riders were taught and helped to understand and embrace Gandhian nonviolence principles. They tested themselves and were tested against the types of intimidation and degradation they anticipated. They knew how to behave. That was removed as a potential anxiety. Similar to Mary Gentiles’ work Giving Voice to Values, they had practiced and rehearsed how they would act. They had a chance to become confident and comfortable with how they wanted to show up.
  • While ego is inevitable, the Freedom Riders navigated in such a way that they didn’t let personal agendas or disagreements derail their purpose. The driver of behavior was the common purpose for both white and black Freedom riders, equality for all.
  • In the discipline, focus and clarity of what would be undertaken, the Freedom Riders were united by clear, common goals. They acted in a manner that we’ve come to associate with successful serial entrepreneurs. They had a defined purpose. They kept taking small steps, learning as they went, building on what they had done, moving consistently toward their goal, moving to Plan B when it was warranted.
  • Respect and mutual support defined the treatment they received and gave to each other. While each person was individually exposed, they were connected to a greater whole that embraced them. They created community  that fueled them even during the worst experiences.
  • They embraced a code of conduct that also became an operational strategy. For their purpose, it was nonviolence. Their tactics and strategy were consistent, made sense based on who they said they were. They knew what they wanted to accomplish and they delivered to that goal with discipline and authenticity.

Ultimately, the Freedom Riders gained strength from the clarity of their mission, how well prepared they were to go after it, and the system of support that developed in serving a higher purpose.

The Freedom Riders’ legacy is that they developed an approach they consistently and genuinely honored. Their enduring inspiration is that they lighted the way to the power of a dream fearlessly pursued. They showed what people connected by a common purpose to do good can accomplish together.

Photo by snakepliskens via Flickr.

Gael OBrien_ID_CropGael O’Brien is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a thought leader on building leadership, trust, and reputation and writes The Week in Ethics.