Mitt Romney argued recently that even Jimmy Carter would have ordered the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. The thinking was: Anyone would have done it. Might the same be said about the “greatest generation,” those who endured and prevailed through the Great Depression and World War II? In a way, they didn’t have a choice. An economic calamity visited. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Germany posed a menace.

Even baby boomers would have risen to the occasion? That isn’t to diminish what was accomplished, or the sacrifices made, by our parents and their parents. It is an opening to frame an achievement that should be honored each May. When I think about generations that reached greatness, the Freedom Riders of this month 51 years ago come to mind.

They had a choice. Many people advised against traveling by bus into the Deep South, young blacks and whites seeking to challenge segregation, the degrading practice of separate accommodations, something the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down in 1946, to no practical avail. The Freedom Riders heard from those worried that their effort would jeopardize the civil rights movement, proving too confrontational, one step forward and two back.

Yet they boarded two buses in Washington, D.C., anyway, headed to New Orleans, determined to ask no less than that the country live up to its ideals. Their story often has been told. Near Anniston, Ala., a mob attacked one bus, setting it on fire, passengers fleeing and some then beaten. The other bus pulled into the station in Birmingham, a mob descending, pummeling Freedom Riders with pipes and clubs.

Would they continue, bloodied and bruised?

Bus drivers balked. Yet the Ride started anew — in Nashville, Fisk University students picking up the cause. They practiced the same nonviolence in the face of mob brutality in Montgomery. When authorities in Jackson, Miss., detained them in a state prison, the Riders responded in defiant song, “Buses are a coming! Oh, yes!” And the buses soon came, Riders from across the country pouring into Jackson.

The nonviolence drew a persuasive contrast. The resilience proved hard to resist. President Kennedy and his brother, Robert, the attorney general, mobilized federal authority, albeit slowly, as they weighed the political ramifications for a Democratic Party still with long ties to the South. At a dark moment in Montgomery, Martin Luther King, who had kept his distance, rallied the entire movement.

By September, the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered that such segregation must end. Here was an early and leading triumph for civil rights, driven by a most courageous act. Young people chose to ride the bus. They put themselves at risk to test the greatness of the country.

—MICHAEL DOUGLAS

Editorial page editor