Andre Block Sr. and Jonathan Williams on their Unity Ride from New Orleans to Toronto. PHOTO COURTESY UNITY RIDE

Unity across the miles

A liberal, a conservative and some bicycles

Two men – one Black and one White; one more liberal and one a staunch conservative are crossing bridges together, logging miles on bicycles all while hashing out complex and often controversial political opinions. And it all started over a couple of beers in a Tennessee tavern. That meeting launched an unexpected friendship between Jonathan Williams and Andre Block Sr. Five years later, they have crossed the nation together three times and covered thousands of miles, with both on two wheels. The first tour was Oceanside, Calif. to Washington, D.C., the second was a journey along the underground railroad from New Orleans to Toronto and the third and recently completed was called “Riding Across a Masked America.”

“Jonathan and Andre want to show the world that, no matter what, no matter how great the differences seem between two people, everyone can find something to agree on,” they wrote on their website.

The entire project and the resulting documentaries sport the moniker: The Unity Ride. Unity is the goal. In a nation so divided by race and politics, these men see increasing importance in “We the People,” words they consider the most powerful three words ever uttered to represent any nation, they explain in their first documentary. Those words also equal a collective responsibility.

So they travel and they learn of divides crossed, help extended, and kindnesses shown throughout history. They have tough discussions and they learn from each other, not just the other person’s beliefs, but Williams said they have really learned how to relate to people in general.

“At the end of the day one of the things we pride ourselves on is we do talk about all the issues that people don’t want to talk about. One of the things is we don’t try to change each other's minds, we just try to listen and understand where that person is coming from and why they feel the way they do.

“That has taught me that I can have these productive conversations because I’m not asking them to change their minds, I’m just asking them questions about why they feel the way they feel, and then respecting and understanding [their opinions],” he said.

For Williams, the trip through Montana was exactly as he expected – beautiful scenery and hardworking people; folks trying to make a difference, raise their families and do the right thing.

Block said he loved learning of the legacy of Horace Wayman Bivens, who retired in Billings and was a member of the 10th Cavalry of the United States Army and the first Double Distinguished Marksman in U.S. history.

Montana was as beautiful as he expected it would be – never in his life had he wanted to photograph a place more.

“We received so much love in Montana, from sunup getting coffee at mom and pop coffee shops to sundown, having cold beer and good food,” he said. “The people of Montana have got to be the best America has to offer. [It] is a beautiful place to be.”

The next trip will be at a more leisurely pace, deep diving into the history, the stories passed down from generation to generation of communities coming together: “Of natives helping settlers find their way, stories of brotherhood and sisterhood. I’m going to be digging to find out who helped Frederick Douglass start his anti-slave movement and what are some of the organizations and benefits that came out of it. I’m going to be digging to find the story of America – building the beauty that we enjoy today.”

As the friends noted: now is the perfect time to push for the country to unite. “This country was founded to promote independence – the pursuit of happiness, the encouragement of debate, collaboration between unique individuals from different backgrounds – and that’s what Jonathan and Andre seek to promote by riding through communities and exploring history throughout the country,” they wrote.

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