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50 Years Later, College Students Retrace Historic Freedom Ride

40 students join activists on 10-day journey

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.

The Rev. Reginald Green, 71, of Washington, D.C., was a student at Virginia Union University when he arrived in Jackson in June 1961.

"I was sitting in the front of a Trailways bus about five minutes outside of Jackson when a voice on a transistor radio said, 'The Freedom Riders don't know they're in for a lot of trouble.' That's when you really began getting concerned, because you didn't know what to anticipate," he says.

Travel to the 'new South'

In 2011, the January shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords prompted Liliana Graciela Astiz, 19, to get on the bus.

"A shudder went through the town in the wake of such horrible violence," Astiz says of her Tucson, Ariz., hometown. "I started talking with my friends. We discussed how the root of all this violence is the lack of community. When I heard about this bus ride, I immediately wanted to join."

The students will travel through the so-called new South, where the hatred that targeted their 1961 counterparts is unlikely to confront them.

"The contrast is going to be stark," Price says. "That's one reason it's really important to have [the original Freedom Riders] there. They're going to remind us that that's not exactly what the Freedom Rides were like in 1961."

The students will document their journey using social networks, 21st-century technology that Green says would have transformed the Freedom Rides in 1961.

"My father found out I was in jail from a reporter with the Washington Evening Star," he says. "He thought I was in Richmond working for the summer. Today, he would have found out quickly on Facebook. Wouldn't it have been nice if we had some of that stuff?"

Making their own path

Wesleyan University senior Davy Knittle, 22, of Brooklyn, N.Y., plans to blog about his experience. He says the effectiveness of social networking in social justice is yet to be determined.

"As the children of the baby boomer generation, we've been trained to look at civic protest — people gathering — as effective civic action," Knittle says. "So, there's something almost underwhelming about the Internet. No one totally understands how to use Facebook, Twitter and the Internet to effect the same kind of civic changes that were effected by the Freedom Riders 50 years ago, which is why it's such a huge opportunity to be able to do this."

On Nov. 1, 1961, after six months of protests and more than 450 men and women having risked their lives to take part in the Freedom Rides, new Interstate Commerce Commission policies went into effect. Signs designating separate areas at interstate transportation facilities came down. Jim Crow was finally defeated.

The 2011 Freedom Ride will end in New Orleans, a destination not reached by the original Freedom Riders' bus. Astiz calls it a "symbolic victory" and a new dawning of youth activism in America.

"As much as we're fulfilling what the Freedom Riders started 50 years ago, we are making our own path. This is going to represent a new era of social justice leaders in the United States," she says.

Sharon Shahid is a writer in Maryland.