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'Passion is great but strategy 
is essential'

OPINIONThis piece expresses the views of its author(s), separate from those of this publication.

Story and art by Mike Thompson, USA TODAY
TOM ELLISON WAS 11 years old ON MAY 14, 1961, WHEN A WHITE MOB ATTACKED A GROUP OF FREEDOM RIDERS AT THE TRAILWAYS BUS STATION IN HIS HOMETOWN OF BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA. THE EVENTS OF THAT DAY CHANGED ELLISON’S LIFE.
THE FREEDOM RIDERS WERE CIVIL RIGHTS PROTESTERS WHO CHALLENGED THE NONENFORCEMENT OF SUPREME COURT DECISIONS BANNING SEGREGATED INTERSTATE BUS TRAVEL. They rode GREYHOUND AND TRAILWAYS BUSES INTO THE SOUTH AND ATTEMPTed TO EAT AT SEGREGATED LUNCH COUNTERS IN BUS STATIONS.

THEIR ACTIVISM WAS MET BY ANGRY WHITE MOBS ALONG THEIR ROUTE. 

Dr. TOM ELLISON
AS NEWS OF THE trailways ATTACK SPREAD THAT DAY, ELLISON’S FATHER, PROMINENT BIRMINGHAM MINISTER MARVIN ELLISON, WALKED TO the BUS STATION. he FOrBADE HIS SON FROM FOLLOWING. WHEN HE RETURNED with details, THE BLACK COMMUNITY WAS INCENSED. 
“THE NON-VIOLENT DR. KING MOVEMENT HAD NOT SET IN AT THAT POINT.”
tHE ELDER ELLISON then said SOMETHING THAT WOULD GUIDE His son FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE.
“PASSION IS GREAT, BUT STRATEGY IS ESSENTIAL.”

 INSTEAD OF GETTING VIOLENT, THE YOUNGER ELLISON GOT ACTIVE. HE BECAME, IN THE WORDS OF BIRMINGHAM CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER C.T. VIVIAN, “THE CHILD THAT STARTED MARCHING AND NEVER STOPPED.”
“(CHILDREN) WERE TIRED …NOT KNOWING WHEN THE DOGS WERE GONNA ATTACK YOU, YOU COULDN’T WALK HOME FROM SCHOOL WITHOUT BEING HARASSED.” 
“I LOST A LOT OF FRIENDS AT THAT TIME … PEOpLE WOULD JUST WIND UP MISSING.”
ELLISON SET OUT ORGANIZING THE CITY’S YOUTH AND PARTICIPATING IN CIVIL RIGHTS PROTESTS.
“WE (KIDS) TURNED TO EACH OTHER… WE DETERMINED TO MAKE EACH OTHER INTELLIGENT, SMART, FORTIFIED AND DEDICATED.” 
“I STARTED TELLING OTHER YOUNG PEOPLE THAT IT’S OUR JOB TO STEP UP… WE WOULDN’T BE AN EFFECTIVE PART OF THE FUTURE IF WE WERE NOT AN ACTIVE PART OF THE PRESENT.”
“THE ADULTS WERE OLDER, THEY HAD JOBS TO WORRY ABOUT.”
“NONE OF THAT WOULD HAVE HAVE HAPPENED WITHOUT THE FREEDOM RIDERS … BECAUSE THEY GAVE US MANHOOD, THEY GAVE US COURAGE. … IF THEY WERE WILLING TO DO DEMONSTRATIONS AND GET BEAT DOWN AT THE LUNCH COUNTERS … THEN I HAVE TO DO MY PART.”
ELLISON AND THE YOUTH OF BIRMINGHAM participated IN PROTESTS, TRAVELED TO CIVIL RIGHTS MEETINGS AND JOINED YOUTH CHAPTERS OF CIVIL RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS. THEIR EFFORTS WERE ENCOURAGED AND AIDED BY THE CITY’S BLACK PASTORS AND CHURCHES, ESPECIALLY Rev. FRED SHUTTLESWORTH, a  PROMINENT CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER. 
ELLISON GRADUATED MEDICAL SCHOOL AND CONTINUED A LIFE OF ACTIVISM, SETTING UP FREE CLINICS, FIRST IN IN HIS AREA AND EVENTUALLY AS FAR AWAY AS CUBA.
HE TRAINED KIDS WHO WANTED TO BE DOCTORS AND NURSES AND HELPED ESTABLISH AN ORGANIZATION TO PROVIDE EYEGLASSES FOR CHILDREN. CURRENTLY, HE WORKS WITH DOCTORS FOR AMERICA TO CHANGE HEALTH CARE POLICY AND IS HEAVILY INVOLVED IN ALABAMA’S COVID-19 VACCINE EFFORTS.
HE HAS REMAINED ACTIVE IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT BUT IS ALARMED BY RECENT EFFORTS IN MANY STATES TO SUPPRESS BLACK VOTERS.
HE STILL ADVOCATES for CONSTRUCTIVE ACTION OVER PASSION, WHICH MAKES HIM CONCERNED ABOUT THE YOUNG ACTIVISTS OF TODAY.
“THEY MARCH AND GO HOME. … I LIKE THEM MARCHING, BUT REMEMBER, STRATEGY IS ESSENTIAL. … YOU GOTTA MARCH TO THE POLLS AND YOU CAN’T JUST DO IT EVERY FOUR YEARS.”

“IT’S SAD … I DID THIS MARCH AND STRUGGLE SO THAT MY CHILDREN WOULDN’T HAVE TO DO IT AND NOW MY GRANDCHILDREN HAVE TO.”
ELLISON HOPES THAT HIS LIFE HAS INSPIRED YOUNG ACTIVISTS TODAY.
“PEOPLE WHO ARE YOUNG AND AFRAID … THEY CAN STILL ACT EVEN IF THEY ARE AFRAID AND HAVE A POSITIVE OUTCOME."