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Igal Roodenko and the Freedom Rides

Lawrence Bush
April 8, 2017

Igal Roodenko (1917-1991), a pacifist and a gay Jewish activist (center in photo above, with suitcase), was among sixteen men, eight black and eight white, who began a “Journey of Reconciliation” on interstate buses through the segregated South on this date in 1947. As members of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), they planned to ride in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky, to call attention to these states’ defiance of the Supreme Court’s ruling the previous year in Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, which prohibited segregation in interstate travel as an unconstitutionally “undue burden on commerce.” The riders did not meet with the kind of violence that the 1961 Freedom Riders would encounter in the deep South, but they were arrested several times, and in North Carolina, after sentencing Bayard Rustin to a month on a chain gang, the judge said to Roodenko, “It’s about time you Jews from New York learned that you can’t come down bringing your nigras with you to upset the customs of the South,” and sentenced him to 90 days on a chain gang. Roodenko had already served time for refusing military service in World War II, and would later in his life be arrested dozens more times for protesting the Vietnam War, South African apartheid, discrimination against Soviet Jews, and other injustices. He was awarded the War Resisters League Peace Award in 1979. Another member of the Journey of Reconciliation, James Peck, whose family converted from Jewish to Episcopalian when he was a young man, participate in the 1961 Freedom Rides and became a civil rights legend.

“If it were easy, any shmo could be a pacifist.” --Igal Roodenko

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.