Freedom Ride West


Editor's note: James Mills is journeying around the West, exploring issues of diversity in Western national parks.

In 1961, a long bus ride from Washington D.C. to New Orleans changed the world forever. The PBS American Experience documentary “The Freedom Riders” documents this journey. As you watch it, I hope that it will open

your awareness to the fear and vulnerability a conspicuous minority faces even today while traveling, as they're exposed to the hostility of an entitled majority.

As a person of color, I’ve spent much the last two decades traveling freely, even joyfully around the world. But when driving through remote regions of the U.S. I have to admit a certain apprehension. This is especially true when venturing into areas where I am clearly in the minority. Fifty years ago the Freedom Riders traveled on buses through the South in order to challenge laws of interstate travel that discriminated against African-Americans. And though we may now make our way throughout the U.S. without fear of racially motivated violence or state-sanctioned reprisal there are still forces in play that encourage segregation. If you take a look at one place that should be a safe haven for individuals of all colors -- our national parks -- you'll find they appear to be an area of the country where black people are not entitled to go.

When I travel to the wild and scenic places of our country I am typically one of a very few, if not the only, African American in sight. Visitors to our state and national parks include minorities in low numbers relative to their percentage of the population. This is an anecdotal observation, but it can likely be confirmed by U.S. census data and academic research. The fact remains that despite advancements of civil rights in 1960s -- through the brave sacrifices of activists like the Freedom Riders -- black people in this country as a group do not travel to our national parks with the same relative frequency as whites. I’m on a journey to discover why.

The events of 50 years ago as depicted in the Freedom Riders documentary should not be taken as an isolated moment in our history; rather, they are a prophetic truth of racial segregation that continues to this day. To be sure, gone are the angry club-wielding mobs and state legislation barring access to a traveler’s destination. But in many of our minds remains a clearly lettered sign that reads “whites only”.

Perception becomes reality when people of color deny themselves the opportunity to enjoy the wonders of parks such as Yosemite, Grande Canyon, Arches or Yellowstone. I heard it said recently that, “National parks are where white people go to do white people things.” The suggestion that communing with nature is the exclusive purview of Caucasians is absurd, but is apparently a widely held belief of black and white people alike.

I know that there are many among us who challenge the notion that getting back to nature is something that “black people just don’t do.” With the same courage of the Freedom Riders who traveled south in the last century, each of us can travel to our nearest national park. Setting aside our fears, we people of color must standup to the very idea that we should not, cannot or do not become fully engaged in an active lifestyle outdoors or the movement to preserve the natural environment for future generations. In spirit of the Freedom Riders, it’s time to hit the road.

To be continued…

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

James Mills is a freelance journalist and creator of the blog The Joy Trip Project.

Bill Vanderberg
Bill Vanderberg
May 24, 2011 09:47 PM
As Black Americans, my wife and I have spent the past 4 summers making a similar tour of national parks and monuments in the West. Our private joke is that we can count the number of other Blacks we have encountered on both hands. This summer we plan to tour the East Coast and are hoping for better luck. Have fun and look forward to your blog posts.
Jessica Pope
Jessica Pope
May 25, 2011 10:40 AM
I started working for the park service a year ago as a seasonal park ranger and one thing that struck me when I started is lack of diversity in the NPS workforce. Perhaps the NPS should work a little harder at recruiting people of color to come to work at the parks here in the west.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
May 25, 2011 02:47 PM
I think foreign visitors are more common than African Americans.
John & Carolyn Wilson
John & Carolyn Wilson Subscriber
May 26, 2011 08:09 PM
I don't want to make a broad generalization; they aren't safe. But, I worked with inner city kids for 25 years in a rural nature center. I found more of the black kids likely to be uncomfortable in the woodsy, streamy, buggy, prairie-y places that other kids. Not all of them by any means. Screams of terror at the sight of a critter meant slow careful work to reassure and create a more positive encounter. Why is this group more likely to have kids who needed an intense effort to make a great visit? Theories abound and are surely related to the question of the essay. I think it might have to do with the biologically sterile city environments inner city kids come from. [We continually worked to bring people of color as interns and staff. Frustrating, hard work.] I worry that this is too short a comment that will be misinterpreted; yet, I present it.
James Mills
James Mills Subscriber
May 27, 2011 06:47 PM
Thank you everyone for the great comments. I sincerely appreciate your participation this discussion. I'd like pose to you what might sound like an odd question. Why does it matter that more people of color visit the National Parks? Many believe they're too crowded as it is. Why should the majority population have an interest in making the National Parks more relevant and inclusive to minorities?
Bill Vanderberg
Bill Vanderberg
May 28, 2011 12:17 AM
@James - the answer to your question is simple: very soon the "minority" are going to become the "majority". People of color are going to become the majority in the U.S. and unless they come to know and appreciate these precious places, they will not be willing to pay to support and protect them. This is what motivates my introducing kids to the outdoors and some have gone on to become environmental activists. If they don't know, they won't care.
John Wilson
John Wilson Subscriber
May 28, 2011 05:44 AM
A strong yes to Bill Vanderberg.

Also there is an issue of fairness. As a nation, long ago, we decided that some landscapes were of sufficient worth that they deserve protection. I think their true value is hard to discuss with the general public (without getting tangled up in things like tourist dollars, which are important). There is a sort of illiteracy in all sectors of the community when it comes to the value of places.

Should all citizens have access to these revered places? I believe it would be grossly unfair to deny it. The access is denied because the skills needed to appreciate the places have not been provided. We would agree that it is unfair to deny access to libraries because people lack reading skill. How is a landscape illiteracy any different.
James Mills
James Mills Subscriber
May 28, 2011 06:10 AM
Bill, thanks for your continuing work getting kids outdoors. When I make it LA later this month I hope you'll introduce a few of them to me. John, your term "landscape illiteracy" is a remarkablely profound take on this issue. I like it because it removes the more complex aspects of race from the equation as well as soci-ecomonic status. If we look at this as an education issue as we might "dietary illiteracy"-helping kids make better food choices to curb childhood obesity- the challenge of a more diverse and inclusive outdoor landscape could become more attainable. Just as we would never allow a child to go without the ability to read, we must find landscape illiteracy equally unacceptable.
John Wilson
John Wilson Subscriber
May 28, 2011 06:24 AM
Don't worry, I will be quiet for a while after this.

A voice from the past:

"To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or sea-side stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall. Teach him something of natural history, and you place in his hands a catalogue of those which are worth turning round."

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–95), British biologist and educator, “On the Educational Value of the Natural History Sciences”, Lay Sermons, 1871
Duane Poslusny
Duane Poslusny Subscriber
Jun 03, 2011 01:31 AM
There are believed to be several socio-economic reasons why wild land recreation is an middle class to affluent, well educated, white activity. I believe it was B.L. Driver who first researched the different socio-economic factors in outdoor recreation. He found that people with freedom in their job (doctors, lawyers, etc) recreated in a more restrictive fashion (ie Leave no trace backpacking). Whereas, people with little freedom (ie factory workers) preferred power based recreation (OHV and snowmobiles). Combine low economic standing with low freedom jobs with a racial memory of the woods is where lynchings happen, and african americans as a whole never developed a culture of outdoor recreation. Additionally, during the Post WWII era when outdoor recreation and National Park visitation exploded, African Americans were still restricted by Jim Crow laws, segregation, and hostile racism in much of the country.

So, a cultural lack of interest in outdoor recreation and National Parks leads to a lack of minorities interested in working for NPS or other land management agencies. Director Jarvis is made diversifying the Park Service a priority. One example I know of is the Pro Ranger program at Alamo College, which specifically recruits minorities to become law enforcement rangers for the NPS. I'm working with a pro ranger this summer at Bryce Canyon NP, and his family can't understand why he would work in the park.

How do you change a culture? I don't really know, but programs that get inner city youths and poorer kids out into the woods are a great start. Land managers can help, by creating more group sites to allow for larger family picnics and camping, and having more school programs both in the park and at nearby schools.
James Mills
James Mills Subscriber
Jun 03, 2011 09:37 AM
Duane, thank you very much for the detailed and informative comment. I'd be itnerested in learning about the Pro Range program for the story I'm working on and your experiences at Bryce Canyon NP. Please be in
Bill Vanderberg
Bill Vanderberg
Jun 04, 2011 05:47 PM
@Duane - I agree with most everything you say except I've always had a hard time buying the "racial memory" argument about the woods being where bad things happened to blacks. We don't like to swim either but it has more to do with access to pools than any deep-seated fear of water because we were carried to America as slaves on boats across the ocean. I'm from NYC and didn't learn about the outdoors until my Scoutmaster introduced me to hiking and camping. I've seen the same happen with the young people I take outdoors. Now what did cause me pause was watching the movie "Deliverance" years ago, just like the movie "Psycho" sometimes comes to mind when I close my eyes in the shower...LOL