Historian Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, writes from the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.
Day 8–May 15: Montgomery, AL, to Jackson, MS
We left Montgomery early in the morning, bound for Selma on Route 80, just as the Freedom Riders did on May 24, 1961. Fortunately, we didn’t have (or need) the protective ring of National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets, FBI agents, police cars, and military helicopters–”the apparatus of protection,” to use Jim Lawson’s words. We passed by several sites related to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march, including the roadside monument dedicated to Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit civil rights activist murdered by Klansmen while driving along Route 80. Our first stop was Brown Chapel, the AME Church that served as the staging ground for the 1965 Bloody Sunday march. Inside this beautiful and historic church, one of the deacons talked with the students about her experiences in Selma–she was 17 in 1965–and about recent and current race relations in Selma and Dallas County. After a brief driving tour of Selma, we got off the bus and walked silently, two by two, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday police riot. The students spent a few minutes at the memorial park at the eastern end of the bridge before reboarding the freedom bus.
We headed west toward the Mississippi line and on to Meridian, our lunch stop. We paused outside the county courthouse in Meridian, the site of many voting rights struggles during the 1960s. And I told the students about Medgar Evers’s confrontation with white supremacists in Meridian in 1958 when he defied Jim Crow and sat on a front seat of a bus. We spent the night in Jackson, where the students held another teach-in on current social justice issues, and where I and the Freedom Riders attended a screening of the film at the Masonic Temple on Lynch Street, the headquarters for the NAACP, SNCC, and CORE during the Freedom Rides and after. The panel discussion following the screening featured veterans of the Jackson Non-Violent Movement, including Hezekiah Watkins, who was the youngest Freedom Rider at age 13 in 1961, and MacArthur Cotton, a Freedom Rider in McComb, MS. Jesse Harris, the legendary SNCC actvist, was also on hand. It is somewhat strange visiting Jackson as a quasi-tourist, staying in the old King Edward Hotel just across from the Illinois Central railway station where so many Freedom Riders were arrested in 1961. History, memory, and a whirl of conflicting emotions.