Ashley Lucas is production dramaturg for The Parchman Hour by Mike Wiley. The text of this post contains the dramaturgical notes she wrote for the program of the play. This is Part 2 of a two-part essay -- click here to start with Part 1!
The bus rides themselves provided sufficient evidence of the Freedom Riders’ bravery and the depth of their belief in the Civil Rights Movement. However, the Riders further proved their resiliency and their devotion to human rights by maintaining their strength, humor, and commitment to one another during the weeks they spent inside Parchman. Few people have the will to sing about freedom while they are held captive, to engage in hunger strikes when they have already lost much of their physical strength, to hold fast to their ideals when almost no one can see them do it. They faced Parchman and still believed in the dignity of all people. The Parchman Hour does much to capture the sheer force of will of the Freedom Riders, and it raises up their songs and stubborn optimism in the face of terrible violence and irrevocable injustice. They, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Cesar Chavez, imagined the freedom and equality they did not have and sought to create it with little more than their bodies and voices.
Though the Freedom Riders had a significant hand in the many great triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement, neither they nor the many others who fought for freedom in the 1960s managed to eradicate racism, inequality, or the brutality of incarceration. In 2008 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report about the “horrific conditions” at Parchman Farm. HIV-positive prisoners began writing to the ACLU in 1998, explaining that:
they were living in squalor, categorically segregated from the rest of the prison population, and barred from all prison educational and vocational programs and jobs. They told us that they were dying like flies because prison doctors refused to give them the “cocktail” (the triple-drug combination therapy that since 1997 had begun to change HIV from an inevitably fatal disease to a treatable chronic illness). (Winter and Hanlon, “Parchman Farm Blues,” ACLU Website)
The ACLU investigation found that of the one hundred twenty men being held in segregation, eighty percent were black and most were convicted of nonviolent offenses. Their report describes these men as being “warehoused in a virtual leper colony and left to die.” ACLU lawyers spent nearly ten years in litigation before they felt that officials at Parchman were finally taking steps to change these conditions in 2007. Life on the Farm doesn’t change much.
The courage of the Freedom Riders—and indeed Mike Wiley’s play—ought to push us out of our seats and into our own forms of protest. We cannot merely marvel at what those in the Civil Rights Movement did for us; we must root out the injustices which surround us today, both those that are readily apparent and those which are deliberately hidden from us. The United States incarcerates 2.3 million people today (one in every one hundred of its citizens) (US Bureau of Justice Website). Our schools are now more segregated than they were in 1954 when the Brown decision was handed down (www.projectcensored.org). In 2010, 17.2 million households in the U.S. did not have enough food to feed their families—a higher rate of hunger than we have seen in this country’s history (www.worldhunger.org). If we admire the Freedom Riders, then we must seek to become them in new ways and in unexpected places. We cannot be content to ignore the persistent legacies of racial inequality, but we must be creative—like the Freedom Riders—and imagine the bus before we can get on it.