Why would O'Connor, a white licensed practical nurse and student from Minnesota, sign up for the abuse and life-threatening danger faced by people who willingly rode integrated buses into states that upheld segregation? Because, at the time, it was pretty much the same abuse and life-threatening danger faced by hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children of color every day, especially in the south. Men, women, and children who lived with extrinsically imposed indignities on a daily basis as a matter of course, whom she didn’t see herself as superior to.
Raised by socially, historically, and politically astute parents, she was built to do whatever she could to help give equal access and empowerment to the marginalized. O'Connor has actually spent her whole life "creating social, political, and economic change."
On June 11, 1961, Claire O'Connor, a member of SNCC -- the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee -- went with fellow Freedom Riders, referred to as the Minnesota 6, for a bus ride. It would be an interstate bus ride, heading from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi. A well-worn route.
Her Minnesota travel companions were Zev Aelony, Robert Baum, Eugene Uphoff, Marvin Davidov, and David Morton. A bunch of names that sound as much like a rag tag crew of local rock bandmates than a handful of political activists.
O'Connor, the only woman among the Minnesota six, had to be brave, but that doesn't mean she wasn't scared. She's acknowledged that she was afraid. But she was well trained by SNCC. And committed to doing the right thing. Sometimes, as they say, you have to "do it scared."
When the bus had stopped at Batesville, Mississippi, instead of going to the "white" waiting room, the six went to the "colored" waiting room where they were promptly arrested at its lunch counter. For this, they were charged with breaching the peace. After a night in jail and a perfunctory trial and conviction, O'Connor and her companions were sentenced to four more months in jail. But that jail time was part of a campaign by the state of Mississippi to wear activists down, with their brand of law and order.
After a few days, O'Connor's male companions were moved from jail to the men's section of the infamous Parchman Prison. She was also moved after a couple of weeks. Her lot was to spend time in the women's section of Parchman, a place where body cavity searches, verbal abuse, and deprivation were routine.
Many Freedom Riders were arrested before them. And many would come after. So many were filling Parchman that prison staff moved them from prison cells to dormitories.
While O'Connor didn't end up staying all four months, 28 days -- essentially a month -- in a notoriously harsh penal system was plenty. When the Minnesota 6 were all released, they hoped to stress and oppress the Mississippi justice system with appeals. After all, it was with persistent use of process, not violence, that they intended to win this war. Appeals, not surprisingly, were met with further resistance. New trials. Two a day.
Strife has a tendency to make or break you. Adding to her education and applied skills in non-violent resistance, O’Connor’s prison stay didn’t break her. It steeled her resolve to work harder as an activist. She did her part then, and has never stopped living as a force for change.
Even after being released from an arduous time in prison and returning home from the south, O'Connor went back to Mississippi -- Panola County, specifically – this time to register black voters. She worked as a community organizer in Mississippi. And, later, with life taking her much further north, in Manitoba, Canada, she worked across many years in community outreach with marginalized populations there. Stateside, it’s reported that O'Connor also helped found Minnesota's first community-based alternative school. And even some of her present art work makes reference to the activism that has always been a core part of who she is.
At the time of her June 11 Freedom Ride journey, O'Connor was a college student and LPN. She later went on to earn Master's degrees in both Education and Anthropology, studying in Minnesota, Indiana, and – this is where Canada enters the picture – Manitoba.
On this path, O’Connor learned a lot about man’s cruelty to man up close and personal. But it’s clear that those who could kill the body were never as dangerous to her as those who would kill the soul and deny life, liberty, and dignity to other human beings.
Claire O'Connor has never been daunted by having to swim upstream. She’s known full well that, often, doing the right thing demands it.
So what about us? What do we know of the history that passion plays itself out before us? What do we know of the right thing and what to do about it? As individuals, and as a country, where would you say personal and collective choices of destiny have taken us?
There are folks among us who’ve never heard of the Freedom Riders or think that they were a biker gang. More sad, or scary, is that there are people my age – and maybe I’m dating myself, but I was born before the Civil Rights Voting Act was passed – who don't know who Frederick Douglass was, let alone who the Freedom Riders are.
Whatever it is that has made this possible, if we keep doin' it...keep doin' what we're doin,'… we're gonna keep gettin' what we've been getting.
Knowledge is power. And a key to the preventing, as C.S. Lewis put it, the horror of the same old thing.