I Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Set on Freedom

11/10/2011 08:55 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Last month I was invited as a guest to a reunion of former Assistant and Deputy Attorneys General from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Pulitzer-Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch and civil rights activists Julian Bond and Robert Moses also attended. Moses had been Mississippi Field Director of Voter Registration for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the 1960s. The reunion was also the occasion for the celebration of the 90th birthday of John Doer, the former Civil Rights Division's Deputy Attorney General.

Several historically memorable civil rights events were discussed: Albany, Ga., 1962; Birmingham, Ala., 1963; the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963; Mississippi summer of 1964; the march from Selma to Montgomery, 1965; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; etc. As Dr. King's lawyer and political advisor during those years and events, I represented him and the SCLC. We frequently appealed for support and assistance from either Attorney General Robert Kennedy and/or President Johnson.

We were often positioned or viewed as "adversarial." On the orders of Attorney General RFK, wiretaps were illegally installed on my home and office phones, along with the home and office phones of Dr. King, by J. Edgar Hoover, from July 13, 1963 until the end of December 1967. After transcribing the content of every conversation, 24/7/365, that took place between us, the wiretaps were discontinued by Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

I was glad to learn more about the individual dedication of several lawyers in the Justice Department during those years. They worked to enable the civil rights movement to succeed in challenging racial segregation in public facilities and sought to protect our efforts at voter registration. As historian Nick Kotz writes in Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America, "Without tens of thousands of demonstrators demanding change as they transformed restaurant counters into venues for sit-ins, bus trips in to Freedom Rides, and voter registration into bloody battlefields, the shining moments of the 1960s never would have become a possibility."

The Civil Rights Division's "baptism by fire" during the administration of President Kennedy was the interracial Freedom Riders journeys to desegregate interstate bus transportation. The Freedom Riders sounded an alarm bell to awaken our nation's conscience to one of the most egregious and personally humiliating forms of racial segregation that hundreds of thousands of African Americans had to endure, the precepts and principles of equality and justice enshrined in our Declaration of Independence notwithstanding.

During the "Arab Spring" I was pleased to learn that several of its leaders had not only read about Mahatma Gandhi's and Dr. King's philosophies and actions of nonviolent civil disobedience, but they had also studied Gene Sharp's Self-Liberation: A Guide to Strategic Planning for Action to End a Dictatorship or Other Oppression, published by the Albert Einstein Institution. Earlier this week I received a press release that reminded me of the connection a new generation of people from the Middle East feels about the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The release says that next Tuesday Palestinian activists from the Ramallah Cultural Palace in the West Bank "will attempt to board segregated Israeli public transportation headed from inside the West Bank to occupied East Jerusalem in an act of civil disobedience inspired by the Freedom Riders of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in the 60s." The press release continues by saying:

Fifty years after the U. S. Freedom Riders staged mixed-race bus rides through the roads of the segregated American South, Palestinian activists will attempt to board segregated Israeli public transportation headed from inside the West Bank ... asserting their right for liberty and dignity by disrupting the military regime of the Occupation through peaceful civil disobedience.

While it is not officially forbidden for Palestinians to use Israeli public transportation in the West Bank, these lines are effectively segregated, since many of them pass through Jewish-only settlements, to which Palestinian entry is probhited by a military decree.

The media seems fixated on Herman Cain's alleged sexual misconduct, Governor Rick Perry's momentary lapses of memory, Mitt Romney's alleged political "flip-flops," and who will emerge as the GOP challenger to the reelection of President Obama. Nevertheless, as the recent disclosure of an unknown open mic discussion between Presidents Obama and Sarkozy about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu indicates, major matters continue that affect U.S. foreign policy toward Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East.

Once again, America is transfixed on an incident of alleged sexual harassment by a political figure intertwined with the issue of race. Meanwhile, our outsized debt, national spending, high unemployment, housing foreclosures and Wall Street bonuses also continue unabated.

It is refreshing that amidst all of this Sturm und Drang, some Palestinian activists remain inspired by the legacy of our Freedom Riders.

The question confronting us is whether our sense of moral responsibility can transcend the latest "scandal" of the week long enough for us to focus our attention on the plea from our Palestinian brothers and sisters.

Just as our Freedom Riders in the 20th century were primarily directed to awaken the conscience and sense of decency in the majority of white America, our Palestinian "Freedom Riders" brothers and sisters are seeking, in the 21st century, to awaken the conscience of the world and a majority of Israelis.

On Nov. 8 the Associated Press reported that the State Department had announced that "[i]nternational Mideast mediators will hold separate talks with the Israelis and Palestinians this week in a bid to re-launch stalled peace talks after a series of setbacks that have badly damaged prospects for negotiations." This is good news.

My attendance at the reunion of lawyers from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department reminded me of what Martin Luther King, Jr. would often say: "The moral arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward justice." It is this same moral arc that enabled Civil Rights Justice Department personnel to gather in pride to celebrate their work more than 50 years ago and enabled me to see them with greater respect than I did at the time.

I woke up this morning humming a song from our Civil Rights Movement. It made me think about Dr. King's moral "arc." The "arc" is also resilient enough for me to hear the plea of the Palestinian "Freedom Riders" from Ramallah in the West Bank.

I hope that amidst the media clatter of domestic presidential politics, you can also hear them.