Fifty years after the original Freedom Rides successfully challenged Jim Crow laws that enforced segregated travel, 40 college students have begun a 10-day journey that they hope not only will commemorate the event but will offer a lesson in civic participation.
See also: 10 Freedom Riders: Then and Now.
The young people were selected from nearly 1,000 who responded to a call by producers of PBS' American Experience for students interested in retracing the bus route of the 1961 Freedom Rides from Washington to New Orleans. They are joined by some of the original Freedom Riders who want to keep the meaning of the 1961 rides in perspective.
"When you get 40 passionate college students on a bus with original Freedom Riders who are passionate about social justice issues, we're going to have very interesting conversations," says Drake University sophomore Ryan Price, 20, of Apple Valley, Minn. "I expect to go back to campus in the fall with a fire lit under me."
The 2011 Student Freedom Ride coincides with the two-hour documentary Freedom Riders, premiering May 16 on PBS. Producer Stanley Nelson focused on six months from May through November 1961.
Blacks and whites together
The 13 original Freedom Riders — seven whites and six blacks — banded together with a common goal: to open the U.S. government's eyes to the existence of Jim Crow laws and practices on interstate buses and trains and in stations throughout the South, despite a constitutional amendment and Supreme Court rulings against segregation.
On May 4, 1961, they boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses in Washington and rode into civil rights history. From the start, they defied segregation: blacks and whites sat side by side; some blacks sat up front in seats traditionally reserved for whites. They were well aware of the dangers. The day before, they wrote wills and mailed them to their families.
On Mother's Day, 10 days into the ride, the nonviolent protest was met with unspeakable violence. The Greyhound bus was firebombed in Anniston, Ala., and the Freedom Riders were brutally beaten by white segregationists as they fled the burning bus. In Birmingham, Ala., the Freedom Riders on the Trailways bus met a similar fate. Some flew to New Orleans under federal protection.
With the Freedom Rides derailed in Alabama, students from Nashville, Tenn., went to Birmingham determined to keep the rides alive. From there, they went to Montgomery, where a mob waiting at the terminal attacked them. Undeterred, they continued to Jackson, Miss., where the Freedom Rides essentially ended and being arrested became the goal.