April 22, 2011
by Jess Bidgood and Ben Taylor
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Rides, WGBH's American Experience invited college students to apply to retrace the route with a group of their peers. Here is a profile of one of those chosen who attends school in Massachusetts. The American Experience documentary "Freedom Riders" will air May 16.
BOSTON — Zilong Wang, a sophomore at Hampshire College, is used to travel. Born in the Inner Mongolia region of China, he spent his childhood moving around that country before leaving, after high school, to study in Germany before coming to the U.S. for college. And this May, Wang will have a chance to follow an historic course through the U.S., as part of the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.
A remarkably diverse bunch, the 40 young people involved were selected from all across the country and from divergent backgrounds. They represent state universities, community colleges and Ivy League institutions. A few besides Wang are international students, having come from as far as Kuwait and Tajikistan.
Wang said international interest in the Student Freedom Ride is no surprise.
“Right now, the civil rights movement has a global mark on it,” Wang said.
For Wang, the chance to travel the trail of the 1961 Freedom Rides, from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans and in the company of several of the original riders themselves, is a matter of seeing firsthand how civil rights progress gets made. He is eager to someday take what he learns about the struggles in 1960s America back to China.
“China really needs to figure out a way to balance social reform, social progress, and (the) stability and harmony of the society,” he said.
Wang looks forward to returning to China to help facilitate the growth of civil society there, though he sees that growth as halting and uneven for now. “Because China is really a continental — is like America, is like a continent, so different regions have different paces of progress,” he said.
Civil rights movements have gone global, Wang said. But he is still worried that the legacy and lessons of movements like the Freedom Rides are not broadly felt in China.
“That’s something we cannot afford to lose,” Wang said. “Otherwise we’ll be like a boy waking up every morning forgetting what he learned yesterday.”
Still, Wang doesn’t assume his global education entitles him to take a leadership role in anything, just yet. He said he still has plenty of studying to do.
“I still have a rather limited understanding of the whole Chinese society, not to say the global society. So before I can jump in and say, ‘Oh I know what’s the right thing to do’…I hope I will take it easy, take it slower, be more modest about what I already know,” Wang said.
In that vein, he would like to learn hands-on about efforts like the Freedom Rides, hopefully in various places the world over. He wants to travel to learn more about issues and movements at the global level.
“And to keep that nomadic, moving-around tradition,” he said.