Disparity Rides

This month marks the 55th anniversary of the Freedom Rides on interstate buses that shocked the conscience of the nation and helped bring about an end to legal segregation. These days, the trials facing many Greyhound riders who fill the 55 seats on any given bus, while different, should also shock the conscience of the nation.

Greyhound is a kind of rolling focus group for our working and want-to-be-working poor -- those living at the margins, and by the narrowist of margins. Over the past decade, I have traveled more than 100,000 bus miles, part of a project aimed at drawing attention to the struggles of riders. Connecting the tiniest depots and largest cities, Greyhound serves 2,200 destinations in America, as compared, say, to American Airlines, which serves 160, making bus travel the nation's most ubiquitous form of transportation apart from the car. Still, those who travel by bus -- a cross-section that spans every demographic, except economic -- are the least reflected in our daily discourse.

Despite such varied backgrounds on our nation's buses (and the clear legacy of institutionalized racism), there is a oneness in the struggle against a stark economic disparity that paid 25 hedge fund managers an annual take-home of between $175 million and $1.2 billion each last year, while 47 million Americans lived with the incessant insecurity of poverty, on the equivalent of $19,000 for a family of three, not to mention the tens of millions more who hover just above the poverty threshold.

These include people I've met along the way, like Boomer, the roofer from the Allegheny mountains who was leaving Pennsylvania because the worked had dried up, with $60 in his wallet and a bag of tools at his feet, on his way to what he was told would be some work in Florida; Rocky, the ex-Greyhound driver in East Los Angeles who struggled for basic food money; Brian, the vet I reconnected with recently, who survived an explosion in Iraq that put him in a coma, and whose 100% PTSD disability classification means he can't seek other means of work -- and yet whose basic bills for his wife and three year old are becoming too steep to meet.

As I got ready this week for a bus trip to Montgomery, Alabama to speak and perform at the Southern Poverty Law Center related to the commemoration of the Freedom Rides, I called to talk to one of these heroic riders, Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, co-founder of CORE (the Congress on Racial Equality) and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Chief of Staff from 1960-64. He had met Dr. King in 1952 while they were both seminarians. Dr. Walker said that economic justice, which had become Dr. King's greater focus toward the end of life, was so much harder to tackle, because some of the injustice is, "So systemic and subtle," he said. "It's hard to get at."

Dr. King said that "Class divisions can be as vicious and evil as a system based on racial injustice." Yet, there is no ignoring figures that codify the effects of a two-centuries-long system of segregation and slavery. African-Americans are, in varying multiples, more likely to live in poverty, less likely to have access to quality education, less likely to have a positive net worth, more likely to have served time in prison for non-violent drug offenses, more likely to be searched by police, less likely to live as long.

Still, the bus, Dr. Walker said, remains a symbol of class division and the nation's struggles with social justice. But he is hopeful. Not only because of his personal faith, but because of the acts of courage shown by so many, including minimum-wage fast-food strikers, living on the edge of eviction in some cases, who have made a stand for those who stand for a living.

This 55th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, the cause of freedom from our unconscionable disparity and poverty should be the cause of us all.