01/09/2011 04:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Gifford Shooting & the Freedom Rides

As I try to absorb and understand the killings and attempted assassination of a Congresswoman in Arizona, my mind flashes back 50 years to the violent attacks on the Freedom Riders in South Carolina and Alabama and their mass arrest in Mississippi, a state transformed into an armed camp of raging hostility against anyone who supported equal rights for Blacks. The interesting connection is that the Riders encountered no violence in Georgia which was just as thoroughly segregated as South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. But in Georgia, unlike the other three states, on that occasion the reigning politicians chose not to publicly incite hatred and inflame passions against "race-mixers" and "reds." Absent incendiary rhetoric from political leaders, there was no mob violence in Georgia.

The same pattern held true for school integration. The vicious mobs faced by the Little Rock Nine, little Ruby Bridges in New Orleans, and the children of Grenada Mississippi were fomented by racist demagogues creating fear and hysteria to advance their political careers. In other areas, where the politicians chose not to excite race-hatred, school integration occurred with little or no violence. We saw it back then, we see it now, when officials and candidates whip up fear and hatred, when they demonize opponents as enemies of America who must be destroyed, the inevitable end result is violence from mobs and "deranged lone gunmen."