The Freedom Rides: 50 Years Later

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As summer nears, many college students are planning road trips, but few will have the same significance as the one that William Dale, a University of Kansas freshman, will embark on with 39 other college students. On May 6, 40 students from across the country will be undertaking a journey to retrace the stops of the Freedom Rides, fifty years later. In 1961, more than 400 black and white civil rights activists boarded buses and embarked on a journey from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans to test Boynton v. Virginia, a Supreme Court decision that made segregation illegal in the public transportation that crossed state lines. During their journey, they encountered mobs, physical assault and imprisonment, and in fact, because of the violence from the Ku Klux Klan and other supremacy groups, the original riders never reached their intended destination.

But on this year’s journey, scheduled to last from May 6 – May 16, the 40 students will be joined by some of the original Freedom Riders, who will finally get the chance to complete the journey that they began fifty years ago. The inspiring story is already garnering national attention; in fact, the Oprah Winfrey show aired an episode on May 4 commemorating the original Freedom Rides. On the episode, she featured 178 of the original freedom riders, their families, civil rights activists, some of the anti-desegregation attackers, and five of the student riders participating in this year’s journey.

William Dale was one of the five students invited to participate in the taping of the Oprah Winfrey show; he recalls the emotional moment when Congressman John Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders, sat down and discussed the events of the Rides, including the brutal beating he suffered, with his attacker Elwin Wilson, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Wilson recalled how, when the police asked Lewis if he wanted to press charges for the attack, he said, “No. We’re not here to cause trouble, we’re here for people who love each other.” And Lewis revealed that Wilson is the “first and only person who ever apologized to me.” For William Dale, getting to hear firsthand stories like these from the original Freedom Riders was “kind of a surreal experience but also emotionally and physically taxing. I was kind of in awe of them. I was disgusted by some of the actions people did against them, but then inspired by their stories. It was up and down emotionally.”

There was also a touching video where some of the original Freedom Riders shared their reasons for getting on the bus, and their feelings and memories of the rides. One woman said, “I would rather be dead than not free, and that is the reason I got on the bus.”  Another shares that, “Before I got on the bus, I wrote out a will. I was afraid that I might not get back home to my family.” It’s truly inspiring to listen to these brave men and women describe, in their own words, that they were willing to engage in non-violent protests for freedom and equality, even though they were fully aware that it could cost them their lives.

For those who want to know more about original Freedom Riders, the Public Broadcasting Service has a Freedom Riders website that includes film clips, histories of that era, a space for sharing stories among Freedom Riders, a teacher’s guide, an interactive map of the various rides, biographies of some of the key participants and a timeline of events. You can also read about the premiere of the documentary film “Freedom Riderson May 16 on PBS, as part of the “American Experience” history series. “Freedom Riders” features testimony from a fascinating cast of central characters: the Riders themselves, state and federal government officials, and journalists who witnessed the Rides firsthand. The two-hour documentary is based on Raymond Arsenault’s book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. Additionally, there will be a traveling exhibit about the Freedom Riders that will be visiting 20 US cities in 2011.

The Student Freedom Ride is a way to commemorate the tremendous contributions that the Freedom Riders made to the civil rights movement, and the courage and strength that they displayed in fighting for what they believed in. For those interested in following the Student Freedom Ride of 2011 as it happens, there is a “Follow by Rider link on the PBS 2011 Freedom Ride website. The public can also follow the student riders through Facebook, Twitter, online blogs and video posts.

As the date of the journey grows nearer, the students are hoping that their commemoration of the past will also have an impact on the future. William Dale noted in an online video post that “This freedom ride will bring together the civic engagers of tomorrow. I feel like we are a group of compassionate individuals that will have the will power and strength to one day change the world.” After all, one only needs to reflect on the momentous impact of the original Freedom Riders to believe that we really can make a difference by working together to fight for what we believe in.

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