“Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?”
We hear that question asked in our second reading today. It’s a rhetorical question, and at first hearing sounds a bit naive. We all know that doing the right or the good thing is no guarantee against being harmed.
The writer of this letter knows that, too, of course. Christians were already being persecuted for their beliefs. Just last week the reading from the Book of Acts told the story of the first Christian martyr, Steven, who was stoned to death after preaching the gospel.
Peter’s letter is really a reassurance to Christians of the importance of doing good even in the face of evil and peril.
“Even if you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear and do not be intimidated…For it is better to suffer for doing good than to suffer for doing evil.”
I heard a story on the radio this week that brought Peter’s letter to mind. This month is the anniversary of one of the most shameful periods of our nation’s history.
In 1960, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling outlawing racial segregation of restaurants, restrooms, and waiting areas in bus stations that served interstate travel.
Of course, at that time in this part of the country racial segregation was not just the norm, but the law. Local authorities were not about to obey the Supreme Court order.
The Freedom Rides began on May 4, 1961, when 13 men and women, blacks and whites, most of them college students, boarded two buses in Washington DC, bound for New Orleans. They intended to test the Supreme Court ruling by ignoring the “whites” and “colored” signs in bus station terminals across the deep South.
The Freedom Riders, as they were known, were not naive. In the weeks before boarding the buses they underwent intensive training in nonviolent resistance, training that subjected them to verbal and physical abuse to prepare them for what was likely to happen.
They knew violence was probable. They knew they could die. These college students wrote and signed their wills before they embarked on their journey.
But in a documentary on PBS, they said they were happy as they boarded the bus because they knew what they were doing was right.
The buses arrived in Atlanta on May 13, 62 years ago yesterday, where they were greeted by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There were no problems in this city, but King warned them that the Ku Klux Klan had “quite a welcome” prepared for them in Alabama.
He begged them to reconsider, but they refused to be intimidated.
When the first bus stopped in Anniston, Alabama, it was soon surrounded by mobs of angry white people, attacking with metal pipes and chains, smashing windows, and slashing the tires so that the bus could not leave.
Then a firebomb was thrown into the rear of the bus through a broken window.
A half-century later Hank Thomas, then a 19-year-old college student, remembers that day.
“The mob had pretty much broken out most of the windows,” he says. “They were trying to get into the door, but the door was locked. So for a minute I thought we were safe.
“I knew that if we got off the bus that the mob would kill us.”
Then fire broke out.
“Inside there was fire,” Thomas recalls. “Outside there was the mob yelling, ‘We’re gonna kill those niggers. Let’s burn those niggers alive.’”
Thomas decided that the best thing for him to do was to commit suicide.
“I thought that if I breathed in the smoke, took a deep breath of smoke, it would put me to sleep, and that’s the way I would die. When I did, of course, the involuntary actions of the body took over, and I began trying to fight for air.”
Then there was a blast from the bus’ fuel tank.
“When it exploded, the mob ran away,” Thomas said. “That’s the only way we were able to get off that bus.”
But amidst the angry mob there was an unexpected doer of the good that day.
Janie Forsyth, the daughter of the Klansman who organized the attacks on the bus, was 12 that day. The bus had stopped next to a small grocery store her father owned in Anniston. She was in the store when the attacks occurred.
“The bus door burst open, and people just spilled out,” she says. “It was horrible. It was like a scene from hell. It was the worst suffering I’ve ever seen. People were on the ground, coughing, begging for water.”
The preteen daughter of a Klansman could not bear to stand idle in the face of such suffering.
“If they had just called them names, I would have done nothing,” she says. “But they were threatening their lives. They were visiting violence upon them.
“They got by my personal ability to withstand it without trying to do something to help.”
So Jamie wet a towel, got a glass of water, and headed outside.
She picked a black woman in deep distress and washed her face and gave her water. Then she went back into the store, got more water, and took it to another person. She did this again and again and again.
“I knew it was not a safe thing to defy the Klan, but I had to do it,” she says.
She was sure there would be retribution, but at a Klan meeting it was decided that because she was young and just a girl that she obviously didn’t know what she was doing.
Among those she helped that day was Hank Thomas. The two were reunited for the first time 50 years after that day.
“All these years I’ve thought about her and her bravery and wondered what happened to her,” he said. “Of all the ugliness and all the evils that took place in Anniston that day, this was the little angel. And I will never, never forget her.”
The Freedom Rides did not end that day in Anniston. All summer long riders boarded buses headed south. By the end of that summer 436 riders had participated in the movement; most of them ended up in prison in Mississippi.
“The Freedom Riders were a group of young people that set out at great personal risk to make a change, and they did it,” documentary producer Stanley Nelson said.
“There were forces of evil all lined up against them, but they didn’t let anything stop them.”
The Freedom Riders ultimately were successful. At the end of the summer of 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered that all Jim Crow signs be removed from interstate bus and train stations.
But, of course, segregation was still the norm in most of southern life. It took many more acts of courage, of doing the good, before the apartheid system of the South finally ended.
Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop of South African and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who died last year, wrote that doing the good and the right does not always bring success. As in the American South, it took many acts of courage to fight apartheid in his country.
Often those working for the right, working to bring about the kingdom of God, died without seeing success.
“But each failure laid another paving stone on the path to a free South Africa,” he writes. “None of us can see eternity. None of us knows with perfect clarity what the end will be.
“But when we choose goodness we can be certain that, in the fullness of time, the end will be right.”
“Even if you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed,” scripture says.
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”