In 1961, thirteen individuals spent weeks training in non-violent resistance and boarded two separate buses in Washington, D.C. They headed southward to states that included Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. They were described as Freedom Riders, and their mission was to demonstrate against racial segregation in force in the Deep South.
They encountered brutal violence, including a firebombing of their bus in Alabama. This month, on the 50th anniversary of the ride, WGBH's Phillip Martin follows a group of 40 students from around the country as they retrace the path of the original Freedom Riders. Check back for Martin's latest — we'll put the newest items at the top.
May 19, 2011: Selma, Ala.
|Jaynni Webster (via PBS)|
Student Profile: Jayanni Webster
On his way through Selma, Martin spoke with Jayanni Webster, a student at the University of Tennessee. Jayanni is studying post-conflict education in Africa and is the president of her campus' Amnesty International chapter.
May 19, 2011: Meridian, Miss.
Diana Mahoney, a student at Messiah College, tells Martin she didn't know much about the Freedom Riders before she got on the bus, but said she'd been inspired both by the history she's learned and by her fellow students. "We keep watching the documentary and you see the white people waiting to beat the (Freedom Riders) the minute they step off the bus, and then we get on the bus and you see everybody is hanging out together, blacks and whites and Asians and we're all sitting together."
Mahoney said the country still has a long way to go in terms of true racial justice -- but she's encouraged by what she's seen on the Freedom Ride. "It speaks to that there's hope, and we are making progress and to just continue on."
May 18, 2011: New Orleans, La.
Martin checks in from New Orleans, reflecting on the Freedom Ride's highlights from the final leg of the trip. He counts visiting the King center in Atlanta, the site of one of the country's most successfully integrated schools in Montgomery and their own bus breaking down in Alabama as his favorite moments of the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.
May 17, 2011: Jackson, Miss.
Student Profile: Meghna Chandra
In Jackson, the city where hundreds of Freedom Riders got arrested and taken to a city jail before being locked up in Parchman State Penitentiary, Martin spoke with Meghna Chandra. Chandra was born in India and now attends the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Chandra related her decision to join the Freedom Ride to her involvement in labor activism. "Racial and economic injustice are closely tied. Before Martin Luther King died, he was giving a speech to striking sanitation workers, and he said, 'What good is it being able to sit at a lunch counter if you can't afford to buy a hamburger there?'"
May 16, 2011: Montgomery, Ala.
Student Profile: Stephanie Burton
While in Montgomery, Ala. over the weekend, Martin spoke with Stephanie Burton -- a native of Montgomery herself. The Freedom Ride, Burton said, is in her roots -- and not just geographically.
"I'm on the bus because I felt like it would be, really, a celebration of my family's legacy. My family was very active in the civil rights movement and I kind of wanted to celebrate that an celebrate how far we've come. And I think my family was part of the equation," Burton said.
She said the Freedom Ride is helping her learn what she can contribute to that legacy. "I'm really interested in homelessness, and I met someone who in their city they have a homeless publication that's written by homeless people and for homeless people. In my city, we don't have anything like that, I've never even heard of anything like that. And that's something that I'm going to start in my city."
May 13, 2011: Anniston, Ala.
|A busy carrying Freedom Riders is seen after it was firebombed in Anniston, Ala., in 1961.|
A new generation of Freedom Riders recites poetry, hip-hop lyrics and old-school protest songs across this stretch of Georgia.
But, as we cross the state line on the Old Birmingham Highway, they fall silent as one of the original Freedom Riders takes to the microphone.
“Welcome to Alabama,” said Charles Person. He was also welcoming the bus to the scene of one of the most frightening moments in American civil rights history.
Person was 18 years old when he was chosen by the Congress of Racial Equality to be one of 13 riders to head south, in an attempt to integrate interstate travel – the busses and bus stations where “white” areas and “colored” areas so famously reigned.
Student Profile: Lu-Anne Haukaas-Lopez
In Anniston, Martin also checked in with Lu-Anne Haukaas-Lopez, a student at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. She credits the activism of generations before her with her ability to live and study in the United States. "My family is from Colombia and we had to leave because of the Civil War. We came to this country as refugee," Haukaas-Lopez said. "Reading about the story of the Freedom Riders, I realized that the only reason we had space to be here and to have the opportunities that I have had is because of activists like these people. For me, it was a way to come back and say thank you."
Haukaas-Lopez says Alaska has a distinctive civil rights history, mostly centered around indigenous rights. So while the Freedom Ride doesn't directly apply to the issues she sees there, she thinks there are lessons she can take home. "Coming down here and hearing about the youth that led this movement is an incredibly important story to get out to these far remote regions, where there's a lot of prejudice, there's a lot of abuse, there's a lot of things that need to be changed. So just to get out the story that it was the youth that changed these things, I think is very relevant for Alaska," Haukaas-Lopez said.
May 12, 2011: Atlanta, Ga.
Student Profile: Tariq Meyers
Near Atlanta, Martin talked to Tariq Meyers from Dorchester, Massachusetts, a student at Ithaca College. Meyers says he hopes to use the experience of the Student Freedom Ride to stimulate a relationship between public radio and television and the African-American communities in and around Boston.
“The community of Dorchester, the community of Roxbury, the community of Mattapan, doesn’t really get a lot of attention,” he said, referring to public media in general. “How many people know about PBS, how many people know about American Experience, how many people know about the Freedom Rides in Dorchester? I would say very little.”
He sees a gap in the kinds of communities that have access to public broadcasting, which leads some to miss out on the kinds of stories it can tell. But he hopes to use his experience on the Freedom Ride to address it. “My goal is to bring Dorchester to the table…of the conversations that we’re having surrounding the Freedom Rides,” he said. “So that it’s not just more of the upper-class, or more of the predominantly white communities taking an interest in public broadcasting.”
Meyers wants African-American communities to seek out and to be reached by such outlets so that they might more broadly know the original Freedom Riders’ story. “Because if people who look like me, as a man of color, have the opportunity to learn of empowering history, empowering black history…that created change, then I believe that they too will feel empowered,” he said. “Very rarely do we learn about black success beyond the MLKs and Malcolm X’s,” he added.
May 11, 2011: Augusta, Ga.
Student Profile: Michellay Cole
|Michellay Cole (via PBS)|
On Wednesday, Martin reported from Augusta, Ga., a city made famous by the Freedom Riders and by James Brown. He spoke with student Freedom Rider Michellay Cole. She says she's learning about the Freedom Riders in more detail than ever before. "I feel that it is important for us to relive history and document our experiences so that others can know what sacrifices have been made in the African-American community," Cole said.
Cole said she's passionate about education as a means to solving problems that continue to plague the U.S. "I feel that education is connected to a lot of the greater social ills in this nation. The prison-industrial complex is something that I'm really passionate about, and I think that, without education, it's just going to continue to go on a downward spiral from here," Cole said.
May 10, 2011: Rock Hill, S.C.
Student Profile: Davis Knittle
|Davis Knittle (via PBS)|
Martin spoke with Davis Knittle, a poet and student at Connecticut's Wesleyan University. Knittle views the Freedom Ride as a chance to reflect on how the United States views itself — looking at historic moments like the Ride to understand where the country has been and engaging with other student riders to ask the question of where it's going.
"I think we're really at a crossroads in terms of how to think about America. What America looks like, what it is, who constitutes it, what it means to be an American, especially as a young person," Knittle said. "And I think that we don't totally know how to conceive of America. And that's scarier than anything else."
Knittle wants to ask those questions about civic activism, too. "What does it mean to be a civic actor? How are you a civic actor when you walk down the street, how you get to school, the people you pass, the spaces you sit in?"
In the town known as the “Gateway to the Carolinas,” Martin stopped with the student riders at the Old Town Bistro, formerly the McCrory’s lunch counter where a group of African-American men, known as the 'Friendship Nine' after the local Friendship Junior College, staged a sit-in in 1961. But it was here that Martin also spoke to a member of the local Daughters of the Confederacy.
The group was meeting there to mark the 150th anniversary of the early days of the Civil War, and to honor its controversial history. Martin asked if she thought her group was misunderstood. She said yes, and that she thinks the misunderstanding is about the word, “Confederacy.”
She sees that the name has strong associations attached to it. “Most people, you think the war, you think slavery. You think we stand for the guy that went to war to preserve his slavery,” she said. “But it was a rich man’s war, a poor man’s battle.”
May 10, 2011: Charlotte, N.C.
Student Profile: Charles Reed
|Charles Reed (via PBS)|
The 2011 Freedom Riders stop in Fredericksburg, Va., where one among, Charles Reed them graduated from Mary Washington University. "My involvement within the campus community as far as diversity issues and social justice have shaped the person I am today," Reed said. "I truly do believe that the Freedom Rides and the story of James Farmer is definitely one that needs to be told."
Reed hopes he can help bring new attention toward the Freedom Ride.
"Often time, you hear about Dr. King and Rosa Parks... but the Freedom Rides and the Freedom RIders is really a movement that is one of the unsung moments of the Civil Rights movement that people did not know about. And that's one of the reasons why I wanted to be a part of this ride — to make sure that America knows this story, and America needs to hear this story.
May 9, 2011: Washington, D.C.
|Peter Davis, right, says he is inspired by original Freedom Rider Genevieve Houghton, left. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)|
Sitting at an outdoor café in Cambridge, 21-year-old Peter Davis, a junior at Harvard, explains why he took time from his end of semester studies to board a bus heading south.
“I applied for the 2011 Student Freedom Ride because I know that every generation has to re-grow the spirit of democratic activism,” Davis said. “It doesn’t naturally flow from generation to generation and I can think of no better way to be inspired to continue the struggle to make America a more perfect union than to learn from those that struggled for it before like the Freedom Riders.”
In 1961, Peter Davis was only a figment of the imagination. So he did not hear or experience the news of a Greyhound bus carrying young black and white civil-rights workers into the segregated Deep South. Their purpose was to try to enforce a federal law banning segregation in interstate transportation. It would not be easy.
The new WGBH American Experience film Freedom Riders tells a story of individual courage that’s many believe has been overshadowed by the giants of the Civil Rights Movement.