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.

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