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Day 10: Esther Kim

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Day 10: We Shall Overcome

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

By Tariq Meyers

She cried. Grasping my hand she pulled me down to her level. She was old and slight of build. Her skin was the color of caked Mississippi clay. Her eyes were a hue of teal and gray. Her lips clinched tight forming wrinkles around her mouth as if each line told a different story; each crease, a different narrative; each trench, a time when the old Louisianan spat wisdom.

Tears running down her face, she thanked me. Thanked me for caring—for loving; but why? I had done nothing. I submitted an application, boarded a bus, and began the 2011 Student Freedom Ride. I stopped in 18 different cities, checked in at 10 different hotels, slept in 10 different beds. I saw 10 different moons, 10 different stars, heard 10 different rattles of worn out air conditioners. I witnessed 18 different forms of poverty, and 18 different forms of wealth, experienced 18 forms of welcomes and goodbyes—but this one was different, this one felt different, this one meant something different. This wasn’t just any old city, it was New Orleans. The same New Orleans that met Katrina, the same New Orleans that is burdened with poverty and corrupt police, and the same New Orleans that never saw the arrival of the 1961 Freedom Riders.

She embraced me, held me close. I had finished the sojourn. She waited 50years for that bus to come, 50 years for the Freedom Riders, 50 years—waking each day in hope that justice would soon rise with the sun over the bayou. We stood there connected, our heart beats in sync. I was holding history in my arms. She witnessed sunsets of “colored” signs, hoods that yelled “nigger.” She saw police beat her sisters, and men lynch her brothers. She grew tired of standing and was sick of back door service; done with being spat on and fed up with living with fear. Her name was not “auntie” or “nigra” or “girl,” her name was not “you” or “lady” or “bitch”; she is a human being, a child of God, inferior to no one. But she waited, waited fifty years, because she knew the Freedom Riders would come one day, someday, even in the dark days. She held me close because we had arrived.

We were the manifestation of her hope, the manifestation of her vision. The struggle of the Civil Rights Movement had come to fruition. We were 40 strong – black, white, yellow, tones of red and brown. We were Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Muslim, Hindu and agnostic. We were gay, straight, transgendered and bisexual. We were old and young. We came from the North and the South, from coast to coast. We were rich and poor; came from top universities and community colleges. We were sending a message, a clear message: “We shall overcome.”

She let me go, looked me in the eyes. She gave a smile and said, “it’s your turn now, don’t let nothing turn you around.”

“We shall overcome some day. Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day. We’ll walk hand in hand; we’ll walk hand in hand. We’ll walk hand in hand some day. We shall overcome.”

Atop Pine Mountain

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

By John Walker

It’s been almost three weeks now, and I still cannot believe I was on the bus. There are questions everyday and pictures to remind me this trip of a lifetime happened. As surreal as it might have seemed, there is no doubt I spent eleven days with thirty-nine of the most amazing people in my generation. They came from all walks of life and headed off in every direction imaginable. For those eleven days we were bound tight, weaving a web of friendship, ideas, and pure energy. And just like energy we could not keep to the confines of one bus but had to expand rapidly like a big bang. Imagine forty shooting stars across the sky going in different directions, each one carrying enough light to change the world.

Here I am on the top of Pine Mountain looking across the valley. The night sky is clear, but no sign of shooting stars. Up here we fight strip mining and help communities affected by it. Up here we watch the tallest mountain in our state being stripped all night and day. The work never stops. Even from across the valley we can hear the bulldozers and the trucks, the roars and groans of heavy machinery blending with the whippoorwills and night critters. The mine’s overhead lights illuminate the distant mountainside while we slowly build up our campfire.

I wonder if they can see our tiny fire. I wonder if they know why we are here. Someone in our circle starts pickin’ at a banjo while others sing. Someone throws another stick on the fire, and a smile creeps onto my face. There is only one song I can think of right now, one I can’t wait to sing with my new friends again someday.

“this little light of mine,…..”

Day 10: Jason McGaughey

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Day 10: Erica Shekell

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Day 10: Living Memorials

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

By Ryan Price

American Experience has truly allowed the 40 of us college students to live through a vital American experience. As I sat Saturday night in the fifth pew in First Baptist Church in Montgomery, I admired the men and women in the four rows ahead of me. In the first row sat some of America’s greatest treasures: the Freedom Riders.

Jim Zwerg, Helen and Bob Singleton, Rip Patton and Joan Mulholland comprised that first row. After spending multiple days with them, I can confidently say that their idealism for America might match that of our founding fathers. These five courageous American citizens have dedicated their lives to forming “a more perfect union,” and still, tirelessly, continue to do so.

In the next three rows sat some of America’s greatest promise: the 2011 Student Freedom Riders. I recognized the back of each of their heads and I can recall each of their stories. Each of their idealistic fires will lead them to invigorate Civic Society (Peter), protect laborers (Meghna), or save the environment (Zilong).

The communal feeling among our five rows was real. As we watched the documentary and celebrated with the original Riders that night, I began to intimately understand the civil rights movement’s ideal of the “Beloved Community.” We were in it.

In our circle, with our brothers and sisters, we could share anything. For example, I have even sung multiple times on this trip despite being diagnosed with stage-five tone-deaf disorder (and only got a little ribbing about it). I may have shattered windows when I belted out “This Little Light of Mine” in New Orleans, but no one in our small family cared.

We have spent the last ten days with Pulitzer Prize winners, an amazing travel agency team, passionate members of the PBS crew, 39 friends and allies, and multiple American heroes. It has been an absolute privilege to live through this American experience. I have no doubt that we will recognize the unparalleled opportunity this ride has afforded us and will honor it by giving back.

It is neither pure coincidence nor justice’s inevitability that enabled the 40 of us diverse students to ride on a bus together in 2011. It was just 50 years ago that justice’s inevitability was in question, when the 40 of us could not simply ride a bus side-by-side. Indeed, justice in 1961 looked like thirteen-year-old Hezekiah Watkins sitting on death row for integrating buses. Just 50 years ago those who “protected and served” did so by granting the Klan 15 minutes of free time to ravage the young nonviolent Freedom Riders.

The forty of us understand this well now. One of the original Freedom Riders looked at us the other night and defined our duty:

“Memorials can not be confined to buildings or artifacts. Memorials must be living. The 40 of you will go out into this world when you’re done here, and whether you know it or not, you will be a memorial to what we did in 1961. You will be walking, living, breathing memorials.”

The responsibility that demands of us is, quite-literally, monumental. If we go on to serve as living memorials to the sacrifices of the Freedom Riders, we will love all of our brothers and sisters, stand firmly for human dignity, and organize to protect constitutional rights. We will also teach our respective communities that one of the best ways to overcome injustice is to laugh at it, as Joan, the Singletons, Rip, and others did in 1961. And I don’t know about the other student riders, but I’ll have freedom songs stuck in my head for another three months. So Des Moines, Iowa, be ready to learn some new music!

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: thank you American Experience for educating and empowering our younger generation. You have enabled diverse friendships while renewing the young idealistic spirit in us that is so central to actualizing the American Dream and the Beloved Community.

The 40 good-looking new monuments across the country will go out into this world as a testament to the value of your education. Take a bow American Experience, and, more importantly, original Freedom Riders ,because your work has earned you the right to do so. Thank you.

Day 10: Tania Smith

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

Day 10: My Heroes

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

By Jason McGaughey

For most of my life I have wrestled with deconstructing my own sense of history. I have understood since I was a child that the brutal systems of oppression that have been historically implemented and maintained were and are imposed upon my fellow human beings by oppressors who look like me. What does it mean to be proud of your history even after you have come to this realization? As a white male, this question has been very difficult for me to come to terms with. The only answer that I have is that I can say that I am proud of my history because I understand that not everyone who looked like me was part of the systems of oppression. There have always been those who look like me who have fought against injustice.

The number of whites who fought against injustice may not have been huge, but it means that the magnitude of their courage is only that much more valiant. This trip has provided me with the opportunity to speak with two such heroes.

Jim Zwerg was one of the original Nashville Freedom Riders. A white student at Fisk, he came to participate in the demonstrations and volunteered to risk his life by traveling into the Deep South, challenging Jim Crow laws in bus and train stations. He was brutally beaten during this process by white supremacists, but still managed to hang on to the principles of nonviolence and not give in to hate. To shake his hand and hear from him about the principles that have guided him, moved me to my core.

I also had the privilege to experience this entire journey with Joan Mulholland, a woman from the South who challenged social norms to stand up for justice during the sit-ins, and joined the Freedom Rides during the call to fill the jails of Mississippi. She spent time in Parchman Prison for her convictions, and has held strong to her beliefs on equality and justice.

White people who dared to stand up against such seemingly unbreakable systems of exploitation, and who maintained faith in the power of transformation, are truly inspiring to me. As a young person coated with white skin, I take heart in their triumphs and tribulations.

I have hope that in my generation that there will be more and more white people like Jim and Joan who come to awaken from their slumber. It is long past time for society to call for an end to white privilege and end to systems of oppression. I have hope that one day, I likely will not live to see it, this nation will finally end systems of exploitation. I have hope that one day white people will stop perpetuating systemic racism and will discard racial injustice. It is high time that justice reigns true, and stories from the heroes of the past give me hope that more people who look like me will challenge the system and become heroes for future generations, bringing them hope and pride that we can rise above and destroy oppression. The movement lives on and I take courage in the tales of the past and strength in their legacy. They give me hope to face the obstacles in my own life that I will face as I continue their fight against oppression and for justice.

Day 7: Sarah Cheshire

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

Day 8: To Hope and Forgive

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

By Alicia Skeeter

There have been two actions that I have been examining over the freedom ride: to hope and to forgive. Hope and forgiveness have been exposed to me in real and piercing ways over the freedom ride, the past two days especially. I want to understand these two things and gain a greater perspective on them. This experience is providing me the space to do that.

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama embodies what it means to hope. When we visited there, this is all I could think: How could the people of the church and community continue to move forward after being bombed and after four of the congregation’s children were murdered? I couldn’t and still don’t understand that strength, that courage to hope. To hope is to say that things are going to get better. I know if I were a part of that church, it would have been very difficult to have those same emotions and same actions.

During our visit we met some church members and listened to the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir share testimonies and songs of hope and of freedom. In their church, one of their stained glass windows is called the Wales Window. This window is a very powerful piece of art that is a visual expression of what hoping and forgiving really looks like. The Wales Window is a picture of a man with his arms spread wide, one hand pushing away and one hand open, in a receiving position. The hand pushing away is supposed to represent the fight to overcome oppression. The receiving hand is open to welcome forgiveness and love. The 16th Street Baptist Church is hope; the 16th Street Baptist Church is forgiveness.

Another way these actions of hope and forgiveness have been presented in a very real way during this ride was through Jim Zwerg’s talk on nonviolence. He was an original Freedom Rider who was hospitalized because he was beaten so severely, and never returned to the Rides because of his injuries. He has such a gentle spirit. I especially recognized this spirit in the way that he talks – his speech is a reflection on how peaceful he is because he is forgiving. Jim Zwerg is forgiveness. He told us that while people were beating him, he was praying for them and forgiving them. Who does that? How? These are the questions I will continue to ask. I will look to the 16th Street Baptist Church when I need a reminder of what it means to hope. I will look to Jim Zwerg’s story when I forget what it means to truly be forgiving.

Day 10: Charles Reed

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Day 8: “Gay is the New Black”: Why This Is and Isn’t True

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

By Erica Shekell

The 1961 Freedom Rides serve as a model and inspiration for other social justice movements. The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights movement is one of these.

It was a few years ago when I first heard the phrase “gay is the new black.” It expresses the idea that both blacks and LGBT individuals have been discriminated against legally and socially and that some have been beaten or even killed because of their identity. It also expresses the idea that black people have more legal rights and greater social acceptance than LGBT people do at this time – that most of the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved – and that LGBT rights are the “next frontier.” It implies that the LGBT community is the next marginalized social group that has yet to receive rights that other citizens enjoy, and whose civil rights will likely be addressed next.

While there are many parallels between both communities, I take the middle route. The statement “gay is the new black” is compelling, but I feel that it is neither accurate nor constructive.

Some individuals are offended by the phrase and object to this comparison; they argue that LGBT people have not had to endure deeply systemic discrimination. While there were “colored” and “white” drinking fountains, there have never been “gay” or “straight” drinking fountains. Segregation such as this was deeply ingrained into many aspects of law and everyday life – and most laws do not regulate the everyday lives of LGBT people in the same ways they regulated the lives of black individuals in the Jim Crow South.

Some individuals may argue that discrimination and violence against LGBT individuals is inconsequential compared to the incredible amount of violence endured by slaves and blacks living under Jim Crow. Some may counter that LGBT people would endure the same extreme violence if LGBT was a physical characteristic like skin color, and the absence of this is why they have not endured such violence en masse and only in isolated incidents. Other individuals may argue that while the black community faced violence, they at least had support and comfort from their families – something that many LGBT people lack.

As is apparent, the danger with the phrase “gay is the new black” is that it sets the two communities up for competition, each competing to be the “most” marginalized and therefore most legitimate. I believe that both are legitimate and that it is not necessary for them to compete.

Both groups strive for equality and the right to live freely. There are many other parallels between the Freedom Rides and the LGBT rights movement – many of the Freedom Riders did not tell their parents about their participation, and of those who did, many did not receive blessings from their parents and were even discouraged from participating. Fathers were angry. Mothers cried. This is often the reaction that parents have when their children come out as LGBT. Both groups are familiar with rejection and disappointment from parents.

Another parallel is that “allies,” as supporters of the LGBT community are called, are incredibly important to furthering social acceptance and legal rights of the community – just as white Freedom Riders were integral to the success of the movement. White riders such as Joan Mulholland and Jim Zwerg were respected and celebrated because they cared deeply enough about their country to do something about it and showed that civil rights weren’t just a “black” issue. They gave a face to the thousands of whites who supported the movement. Similarly, members of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) receive enthusiastic applause and cheers at LGBT events and marches. It is sometimes difficult for LGBT people to receive strong support, particularly from family members, so those parents, family and friends who are supportive are all the more appreciated.

The success of both movements hinges on the idea that equality and fairness are not values just for “them,” but for all of us – with that idea being represented by the faces of all people.

Day 8: Francisco Diaz

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

Day 8: On Religion

Friday, May 20th, 2011

By Davy Knittle

On Friday, Odessa Woolfolk, co-founder and president emerita of the Board of Directors of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute spoke with us about the participation of women in the civil rights movement and about the Children’s March that took place in Birmingham in 1963. Afterwards she took questions and while I usually hold back, I asked Ms. Woolfolk the question that’s been guiding my engagement with the stories of the civil rights movement, and my thoughts about the community-based work of each of the students on the ride over the past several days. I asked her, effectively: “The civil rights movement was guided by a faith-based energy that structured much of the discourse of the movement, even though the movement spanned many different religious and non-religious groups. The centrality of that religious discourse, of the crucial role of religious leaders in the movement and, in particular, the music of those religious communities provided a framework for the movement that helped those engaging in non-violent practices to understand and affirm the basic humanness of both the members of the movement and those who were in opposition. With this in mind, is a religiously-grounded discourse that which is most likely to bring people together now in a way that strengthens their collective engagement with America’s future? Is there another discourse that’s likely to be as effective in terms of unifying individual actors in a way that makes the humanness of all people both the goal and the impetus of collective action?”

Ms. Woolfolk stopped before she answered the question. She looked at me, said something to the effect of the question’s magnitude and the whole room laughed before Ms. Woolfolk said to us what I’ve been wondering about throughout the ride. She spoke to the centrality of religion before saying that the goals of her generation were collectively understood and enormously clear and that our work is necessarily more complicated and more difficult.

It’s been a challenge for myself and, it seems, for many of the other student riders, to take the lessons of the Freedom Rides, and of the civil rights movement more broadly, and to apply them to our current work, however that work constitutes itself. In my own reading of that history, the energy of that movement is still infectious, even if our goals and our approaches are less clearly collectively understood. That question itself: “where does the energy for collective action come from?” grounds itself beautifully in the methods of the Civil Rights Movement. If the work of our lives is to figure out how and where to apply that question, then if being on the ride has clarified that question, if for me, I understand collective work as an spiritually-guided, if not structurally religious process, then, in my understanding, the ride is doing its job.

Day 9: Doaa Dorgham

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Day 10: Thank You

Friday, May 20th, 2011

By Robert Sgrignoli

Today, I reflected on how truly lucky I am to have been chosen for this experience. Not only have I had the opportunity to see the textbook come to life, supplemented by actual testimony of those who created history, but I’ve also had tremendous people surround me along the way. When I had originally touched down in Washington D.C., I never expected to be as fortunate as I have been to gain friends such as these.

Originally, I had thought this trip was only going to pertain to the civil rights movement in 1961, but I have been exposed to an assortment of various issues. Whether it was Francisco and Maricela telling me about the DREAM Act, or Doaa informing me on discrimination against Muslims, I have been blessed to have dialogue with them. Every rider on the bus has their own issue that they are concerned about and I wish I had more time to talk with all of them, but the common factor uniting them is their extraordinary determination to change the world.

I am also eternally grateful for the chance to have people help point out my flaws such as Rachael, Anna, Erica and Sarah showing me my own internalized male-supremacy attitude that has been instilled in me by society. My roommate, Ryan, has widely expanded my knowledge and concern for the LGBT community that I have never noticed before.

I am thankful for the opportunity to have hung out with Crews and Petey, two of the most intellectually stimulating and simultaneously hilarious people I have ever met. Having been able to listen to Charles, Tubbs, and Michellay speak on violence showed nothing less than a genuine passion for empowering the youth and exposing racism in the criminal justice system.

Lily, Davy, and Carla exhibit traits I wish I could obtain; they refuse to fit into a mold that society wishes to impose upon them. I rarely hear peers as articulate as Marshall, Karl, and LeRoy; I’ll be waiting to see them on television running for office. Zilong– this kid asks the deepest questions I have ever heard!  JWalk, I appreciate the late-night conversations we shared. Alicia, they coming!

I thank Tania, Raj, Meghna and Esther for making me feel comfortable right away. Baha, Will, and Jason can make anybody laugh and it was much needed on this very emotional trip. Jayanni and Tariq can always be counted on to voice their opinions and produce interesting dialogue. I was happy to see amazing talent in the arts whether it was May and her slam poetry or Jaja and his fluid freestyles.

It was also inspiring to see some of us who have already achieved so much academic success such as Kaitlyn and her acceptance into law school. There were also those I got to know later on in the trip such as JoyEllen and Samantha, bringing their own unique viewpoints and encouraging conversation on a wide assortment of issues. Diana and Stephanie were extremely easy to relate to and were great to interact with.

One of the most real and caring people I have ever met has been Lu-Anne. Talking to her on the bus and seeing her remain humble and genuine has really been a great highlight of the trip. I will put $5 down that we’ll see her on a musical stage someday. Now my main peeps: Lauren and Sara. It has truly been an amazing ride and far surpassed all expectations, and it is all because of their hard work.

One last thanks to everybody involved with the trip, I cannot express my gratitude enough!