Robert Martinson, Freedom Rider

face of a prisoner

Amid Robert Martinson’s graduate education in sociology, he and other students found themselves in an extraordinary position:

We walked barefooted, two by two, into our cages and stood there embarrassed, naked, outraged.

This environment could easily break the spirit of most graduate students:

a one-story, cement-block structure composed of two wings. It is surrounded by a high, barbed-wire fence with guard towers at the corners. It is a prison within a prison, especially designed to break the spirit of the toughest felon. … The inmates are caged in small, two-man cells and look out upon a bare cement corridor bathed in perpetual light.

Yet even in these oppressive conditions they maintained and valued communication with each other:

Imagine the frustration of maintaining democracy under such physical conditions. Someone in cell No. 2 on the far side makes a motion which is ponderously passed from cell to cell, to our “pivot man” and down the thirteen cells on our side. Assuming the motion managed this precarious passage without distortion (or objection), the debate began. Each person’s remarks and interpolations had again to be passed around the block. After everyone had had his full say, the voting would begin. “How does cell No. 4 vote?” “One for, one, against.” “O.K. Cell No. 5, what about you?” “Two abstentions. We want to explain our abstentions.” A series of low groans would break out. This democratic spirit was doggedly defended to the very end.^

The democratic spirit implies inclusive discussion. Such discussion can be long, tedious, undisciplined, and apparently futile. Participants often groan and suffer while awaiting action that has already been widely anticipated. Nonetheless, Robert Martinson and his fellow Freedom Riders were committed to upholding ideals of democracy even while incarcerated.

The effects of freedom depend greatly on its relationship to true knowledge. Among Freedom Riders, Robert Martinson perceived freedom in knowing and acting on the truth:

{The Deputy Sheriff} asked a young Negro why he was smiling and received no answer. He repeated the question in his deadly way: “Boy, what you got to smile about? You in jail, you know.”

“Sheriff,” he answered, “you just wouldn’t understand. I’m smiling because I’m free.”

And I was witness to the fact that, indeed, a new kind of freedom — tough, critical, unsentimental, knowing — is being forged in the jails and prisons of the South. Those who emerge from these jails will never be the same again.^

The democratic spirit of freedom encompasses more than just freedom of discussion. This spirit also includes the hope that true knowledge – “tough, critical, unsentimental, knowing” – can help free discussion to produce less groaning and more smiling.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published.