Saturday, April 9, 2011

Freedom Rider

Five words I never thought I'd write:  "My dad's going on Oprah."  Seriously.

Michael Powell is known to readers of this blog as "Presbyter" and to me as "Dad".  To police in Jackson, Mississippi in July 1961 he was known as "21239".  His biography on the Civil Rights Digital Library reads as follows:
Born in Sacramento, California in 1940, Michael Harry Powell was a student at San Jose State College in San Jose, California when he was arrested for his participation in the Freedom Rides during the summer of 1961. As part of the Freedom Ride, Powell, along with six others, rode a bus from Nashville, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi where he was arrested in the Trailways terminal on July 23, 1961.  (*See note)
I knew a very little about this growing up.  I knew he was active in the Civil Rights Movement, and I'd heard he was arrested for sitting in a black waiting room.  I knew he'd learned in that Jackson jail cell that he could eat anything "if I was hungry enough", therefore no excuses were to be given in the Powell house for not cleaning our plates. 

Today my dad downplays his role in this historic event, claiming that others did more dangerous work, or were more noble of motivation, or followed through more faithfully.  Yet I recently had an African-American military leader in my office who, looking at my coffee table book on the subject, reminded me of the truth:  "I owe my career to people like your dad."  Indeed.

Though Dad did not yet know the Lord in 1961, this Scripture yet rings poignant when I consider his sacrifice:  "Remember those earlier days ... when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded."  (Hebrews 10:32-35)

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. My father will travel to Chicago to take part in a taping for the May 4th edition of the Oprah Show, in which she will honor those who were "publicly exposed to insult and persecution" and who "stood side by side with those who were so treated."  Happy anniversary, Presbyter ... and thank you Dad.

(*) Editor's Note:  Presbyter writes in with a correction to the above account:
The Oprah taping got me interested enough to track this down. I am relieved to know that I did not arrive in Jackson on a bus from Nashville, via Memphis, but rather, as I recalled, arrived at the train station (I believe from New Orleans, but I suppose Memphis was possible). The link in this message is to the first page of the document. My name is on the 2nd page (link at the bottom of the 1st). So, along with Wikipedia, one has to be cautious when one cites the Civil Rights Digital Library.
Updates:  Presbyter did indeed appear on Oprah's show on 4 May 2011.  He can be seen during Oprah's introduction (video here with Presbyter pictured at the 1:09 mark in a brown suit and tie).  He then joined me two months after this for my USAF Honor Guard Change of Command ceremony in July 2011.  Air Force Public Affairs covered the event here.

Lt. Col. Raymond Powell and his father Michael Powell discuss Michael's experience during the Freedom Rides of 1961 at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington D.C. July 11, 2011. The freedom rides sought to end segregation in the Southern states with non-violent protest. Raymond relinquished command of The U.S. Air Force Honor Guard on July 12, 2011, nearly 50 years after his fathers arrest in Jackson, Miss. (USAF Photo by Staff Sgt. Raymond Mills)