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2011 Student Freedom Ride: 50 years later, 40 students get on the bus.  This is their journey.

Day 10: Many Roads, One Journey

May 17th, 2011

By Francisco Diaz

As this journey comes to a close, I reflect on the last ten days on the road. I have learned much from the people I have met, not only from the Freedom Riders and other civil rights veterans, but the other students on the bus and the myriad viewpoints and causes we all keep close to our hearts.

Much of our trip has been spent mulling over how different our struggle is compared to back in the ‘60s. The Klan has traded in robes for suits, and night riding for aggressive lobbying. The challenges and adversaries we face are more superfluous, ambiguous, and globalized, they are not as obvious and the challenge seems daunting. Fortunately, the approaches people are taking to take on these problems are diverse, even if they sometimes seem disparate.

On this bus we have people passionate about education inequality, environmental justice, immigrant rights (or as I call it, the right to migrate and the right to stay home), the prison system and so on. Some of us are amazing orators, some can sing, some write, some make films. But we all have passion. We all look to tackle the world’s problems in a different way.

The level of discourse and debate on this bus is of the highest level I have experienced anywhere to date. It gets to the point that someone like myself, who has always considered himself a fierce intellectual, has gotten almost weary of talking politics! From the days of conversation, I can only think of one phrase to bring it together: “Many roads, one journey.”

We all have a place in the world, a role to play in the “Grand Act” that is the human experience. Shakespeare once said, “all the world’s a stage, the men and women are merely players.” We all have a crucial role to play in the upcoming act. I can see some people on this bus holding political office. Some might go into law, or become great educators, or incredible labor organizers. Some will undoubtedly reach high accolades or widespread recognition. But as we have learned on this trip, the struggle for freedom has countless nameless, unsung heroes. For each Martin there is a James Farmer or Bayard Rustin. For each Rosa Parks, an Irene Morgan. No matter how, we will all contribute an essential part of ourselves to the ongoing struggle for the Beloved Community.


Day 10: Rachael DeMarce

May 17th, 2011


Day 9: The Spirit of Creative Entrepreneurship

May 17th, 2011

By Marshall Houston

I don’t have an “issue.” I don’t have any specific cause that dominates my thinking. I’ve struggled during this experience to be an “activist” because I’m not one—or at least not an “Activist” with a capital “A.”

I’ll probably never be an expert on any topic, but I believe that I can play a role—a unique role—in developing a deep commitment to human dignity and the empowerment of all people in society.

At best, I am a connector and sharer of ideas, knowledge, and strategies; at worst, I’m someone who loves people and good stories. I’ve embraced this role during my time as an undergraduate, and it has helped me on this ride.

Now that I’ve been on the bus for nearly ten days, I realize more than ever that it will take a comprehensive and unified effort of individuals working for the same general cause—the dignity and rights of all people—to move closer to the Beloved Community.

I understand that the path to the Beloved Community is a journey similar to a climber struggling up a mountain, step by step, with a fog clouding the line of sight up to the mountaintop. The climber can’t see the destination but, by looking back, sees that the view has never been better or as high.

All we can do is work together to continue taking forward step after forward step, no matter how small or difficult.

Though I lack an “issue,” three principles frame the way in which I look at the world, and by extension, the steps that I take.

1.    I believe collaboration is innovation.

Innovation in this sense focuses on ideas coming from the collaborative efforts of a cognitively diverse group. By creating a space for free discourse that is rooted in dignity and equality, unexpected ideas emerge and lead to innovation.

2.    I believe in the power of the human possible.

This means that each and every person has the ability to positively and uniquely contribute in society, and once individuals are enabled and ennobled to discover and utilize these talents, the possibilities are endless.

3.    I believe we need community problem-solving in a spirit of creative entrepreneurship.

Community problem-solving stresses the impact that a group of individuals can have on society using resourcefulness, perseverance, and dedication. Creativity is not confined to the arts, and entrepreneurship is more than just for-profit businesses. Combined together in this spirit, people will approach problems with a belief that they can create something—anything—that improves society.

These three principles are my “issues” in life, and I am confident that the Beloved Community will emerge from a commitment to these ideals.


Day 9: Carla Orendorff

May 17th, 2011


Day 8: A Walk Through History

May 17th, 2011

By LeRoy Ford

Today we visited the city of Selma, Alabama. For me, the drive into Selma was a little depressing because everything looked so run-down and tattered. As we were driving in, I wondered why this area was so neglected. These thoughts continued to bring me down because I felt like something needed to be done. Then I began to think about the history of the city and all of the fighting that took place there to win us the rights we have today. Thinking about this put things into perspective as to why it looked the way it did. Selma may be a poor city, but it is rich with history to be shared.

When we first arrived in Selma, we drove over the Edmund Pettus Bridge to enter into the city. Driving over this historical bridge gave me a feeling that is almost impossible to explain. I couldn’t help but think back to the brutality that happened on that bridge in 1965. However, the bridge wasn’t our first stop. We went to the historic Brown Chapel A.M.E Church. Sitting in the pews, I tried to envision myself sitting in those same pews fifty years ago, participating in the march for voting rights. Being in the building in which so much history took place made me feel blessed and very thankful for those who fought so hard for me to have the freedoms I have today.

After our visit to the church, we returned to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but this time we walked over it, just as they did in the 1965 march for voting rights. We exited the bus and walked over, two-by-two and silently. Silence has never had so much power as it did in that moment. As we walked, I thought back to the courageous people walking in 1965. I thought about the fear that I’m sure they had inside of them, knowing what was waiting on the other side. I began to smile to myself, knowing that because of those brave souls, I could now walk this bridge and be assured that brutality wouldn’t be waiting for me on the other side. As we reached the other end of the bridge where they were met with brutality in 1965, I felt like I could rejoice. I realized that I just took the most meaningful walk in my life and that I will never forget. I took a walk through history.


Day 9: Nine

May 17th, 2011

By Diana Mahoney

They still take my breath away. I thought that by now, I’d have become immune, desensitized, overexposed. Day after day, wandering through galleries, hearing stories, gazing at blatantly honest photographs. Mangled human bodies, bloody beatings and people bent over, sobs wracking their entire frame.

I can’t understand the Rwandan Genocide. Or the Holocaust. Or the Klu Klux Klan. Stories like that of Emmett Till, haunting, chipping away at my desire to believe in the goodness of humanity. Glossy photographs of brutal police beating based on skin tone, shattered glass reflecting the bloodied face of Jim Peck, black and white film reels capturing forever the cruelty we as human beings are indeed capable of.

Once upon a time, in what would come to be remembered as one of the most horrific moments of humanity, a young girl scribbled out a sentence which would come to be remembered and repeated for decades.

“Despite everything, I believe that people really are good at heart.” Anne Frank’s infamous quote echoes through the Holocaust and into the years following. With hints of naivety and hope, she voices an idea that I can’t help secretly, yet desperately wanting to believe is true. And then I switch on the television. Or pick up the newspaper. Child soldiers. Human trafficking. Domestic violence. Inhumanity so beyond my comprehension, so polar opposite to the world both Anne and I want to believe in.

Sitting in the dark church, watching the Freedom Riders documentary for a second time, I feel my breath catch. Because I’ve met these people, ate with these people, laughed with these people, received hugs from these people. No longer are they simply characters in a story that inspires me. Flesh, blood, memories, families and stories… they’re real.

Photographs flash across the screen of people armed with clubs and hate, and images of people I shared heaping plates of steaming spaghetti with mere hours ago. I suck in my breath and try to make out their facial expressions in the dark room, try to comprehend how people can commit these atrocities against other human beings.

Later that night, after trading in the business casual look for t-shirts and gym shorts, a few of us sprawl out on one of the large hotel beds. One in the morning seems the ideal time to discuss Communism, Eminem, and reoccurring dreams.

“In Chinese culture, the perfect number is nine. Because if you reach ten, you’ve peaked, it’s a downward slope from there. Thus, nine is the perfect number because it means that there is room for growth,” Zilong, an exchange student from China, explains.

Nine. It’s the reason that each and every one of the forty of us have gotten on this bus. Nine gives us hope, that there is still space left to make a difference, space to grow. Nine hints at possibility, reminding us that we still have new heights to reach, something to strive for. That amidst all the horrific things that have been and that are, a space is created. A space full of hope, full of possibility. An avenue for humanity to begin picking up the broken pieces and begin piecing them together in a step towards redemption.

“It’s not a safe space, it’s a brave space… step up and step out.” said someone in our group as we sat around on tiny, multi-colored plastic chairs during a discussion on race. I couldn’t agree more. The world isn’t a safe space.

Be brave. I find myself repeating it back to myself constantly. I can’t understand the inhumanity, the violence. And perhaps, in some way, I’m not meant to. Nine. There’s still work to be done, risks to be taken, people worth believing in, potential. Nine. We haven’t peaked yet.


Images from Day 8

May 17th, 2011

Day 9: Maricela Aguilar

May 17th, 2011


Day 8: Injustice Has Evolved. Have We?

May 16th, 2011

By Zilong Wang

Fifty years ago, injustices were very visible in this country. We saw our neighbors and friends suffering from discrimination; we could identify the Ku Klux Klan by their funny costumes. The racial discrimination was so violent and outrageous that people had no choice but to stand up for their dignity. Fifty years later, injustice has evolved: it has become nearly invisible and harder to fight than ever before.

Injustice has become invisible because our society is getting more complex. Today’s “bad guys” can achieve their self-interests without stepping outside of their offices, and without spilling one drop of blood. They can be as friendly as you could imagine, but they steal your money, abuse your tax money, cause worldwide economic damage, control your food supply, pollute your environment, and make you believe that you can’t live without them. This is more than “white-collar crime,” this is the global injustice in its 21st century incarnation.

Fifty years ago, Americans could go on the street and protest; they could clearly identify the evil and propose solution: desegregate schools, buses and lunch counters, for example. Today, it becomes very hard to even identify the evil, let alone fight it. For example, the 2008 financial crisis has caused trillions of dollars of damage, and has destroyed the livelihood of millions of families around the world. But even today, not many people fully understand the cause of the crisis, and we couldn’t effectively identify the criminals or provide solutions. The BP oil spill is another example. How can we protest BP’s crime against nature? Should we go demonstrate in the middle of the gulf, or in Washington, or on Wall Street, or in front of the multiple international headquarters of BP?

Due to the complexity of our system and the invisibility of the criminals, it has become harder and harder to identify the problems, locate the bad guys, and improve the situation. The only way to understand the system is to study it, and usually it would require a college degree to be even literate in the political and financial circle. Sometimes, it takes more than one PhD to fully understand why the system is broken.

However, by the time our young students get their multiple degrees, they are usually hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. In order to pay off the student loans, they can’t afford to fight the system. They have to join the system and take the highest paying job from Wall Street or from multinational corporations. It seems like our education system is designed to make sure that by the time a student understands the system, she/he can no longer afford to challenge the system. The commercialization of education system has surrendered a generation of youth into the hands of the powerful money. By the time students have gained the knowledge, they have lost the freedom.

Today’s social inequality is more severe than ever before, but it might take an economic and political double PhD to understand the system and to provide useful advice. Injustice is hiding in fancy offices and underneath expensive suits and ties. Street protests are no longer effective enough to bring positive change. Is the fight against injustice getting harder? Should today’s youth be depressed because we are facing formidable enemies?

No, not at all. As injustice has evolved over the past fifty years, so has the fight against injustice. Today’s youth is standing on the shoulders of previous generations. We have more powerful tools like the Internet. We face less physical hardship and violence. We are indeed facing unheard-of challenges and evil, but each generation faces a similar situation. Each generation of youth has to solve new problems and come up with new ideas. We are no more or less empowered than anyone else. We will use our wisdom and will to identify the problems and provide solutions. Aim high!


Day 8: Jayanni Webster

May 16th, 2011


Day 9: In Remembrance of Fear, and of Courage

May 16th, 2011

By Sarah Cheshire

We walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge two-by-two, in silence. It is a tranquil Sunday morning—the water rumbles underneath us, the sun has just begun to permeate the thin layer of clouds above, and a gentle breeze ripples the Spanish moss dangling from the trees. In about an hour, the city streets will begin to swell with people, mingling and filing into the churches. But now, the sounds of the city are gentle and muted. It is hard to believe that 46 years ago, at this spot, on a Sunday like today, rows of silent marchers were confronted by uniformed men on horseback, flaunting clubs and bearing teargas.

When the only human sounds I hear are the cars purring past and the thud-thud-thud of our footfalls, hitting the pavement almost in unison, itʼs hard to imagine the cries of the marchers as they retreated into the sanctuary of the church, bruised and battered and bloodied.

Last night, I was talking to an elderly woman while waiting in line for the bathroom at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, where in May of 1961, a mob of angry klansmen threatened a group of peacefully assembled church goers and Freedom Riders. The womanʼs husband was in the church that night. She was at home down the street with their newborn baby. “I thought I was gonna lose him right then and there,” the woman said of her husband. “Iʼll tell you, I was so scared.”

Being at First Baptist on a blue-skied day, laughing and conversing with friends from every background, nationality, and cultural context, itʼs hard to imagine that kind of fear.

At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, in a dimly lit room containing the carcass of a greyhound bus and footage of the original Freedom Riders, I see an interview with Jim Zwerg, the Freedom Rider who, in that city in 1961, volunteered to be the first to step off of the bus in and into the hands of an irate mob. In the video, he is lying on a hospital bed, his face gaunt against the white pillow, bearing the marks of a brutal beating. I look behind me and see the real Jim Zwerg, who has joined us for the day.

“Were you afraid?” I ask him. “No,” he says, “no. I knew I was going to die.”

When my own fights have been subtle, and my actions removed from the immediacy of the issues at stake, itʼs hard to imagine this kind of courage.

There is an aura of peace to these places— the churches we visit, the bridges we cross, the back roads we travel down. At the surface, all seems to be at rest. The beatings, the slurs, the fear, the courage, seem unfathomable, like they occurred at a time and a place so detached from the present. But if I listen hard enough, I can hear whispers of the past— faint, like a gust of wind or a muted footfall.

At the 16th Street Baptist Church, where 43 years ago, on a Sunday like today, a klan bomb killed four young girls as they were changing in the bathroom for service, we listen as the Carleton Reese Memorial Unity Choir sings songs about freedom, clapping their hands together and swaying back and forth.

Carved into the base of the offering table, I notice the strong yet subtle words:

This do in remembrance of me.


Day 9: Davy Knittle

May 16th, 2011


Day 8: Our Noun > Our Adjectives

May 16th, 2011

By Ryan Price

So we continue to travel through many small towns and big cities, practically to the fanfare of trumpets. The cameras come out, filming. The citizens show up, smiling. The mayors are present, handshaking. The museums and universities are great places for us students to learn and grow, while these receptions are often great times for communities to heal.

Here’s the tension I feel though: the original Freedom Riders wouldn’t have behaved as perfectly as we do. As they traveled through these cities, they would have asked things to the tune of: “We’re really happy that our brothers and sisters, black and white, can ride buses together now. But how do you treat migrant workers? Do the children in your high school still viciously bully their gay peers? Do the members of your community paint all peaceful Muslims with the wide, inaccurate and phobic brush of terrorist?”

There’s nothing revolutionary in 2011, thank God, about different races riding buses together. Just fifty years ago, it was revolutionary. Today though the notion of segregation seems laughable. The lesson we learn from the Freedom Rides isn’t that we reached racial justice in the 1960s. No, the lesson we learn as students is that for us to make positive social change, we shouldn’t constantly behave so prudishly, properly and politely (which our generation tends to do).

It would have been rude for me to ask a leader in Tennessee, “Well I’m glad you’ve generously made room for black citizens in the front of buses. But what are you doing about the outlandishly high suicide rate among your LGBT youth? And while you answer that, how does your state do on housing discrimination?” Yet those questions need asking. Speaking truth to power – that’s the best way we could renew the spirit of the Freedom Riders.

What boggles my mind the most in the realm of social justice is this: our complete inability to unite against oppression. One famous civil rights icon told us several days ago that, “Illegal immigration is the worst thing to happen to the black community.” As she continued, the explanation sounded too much like “Hispanics are bad for blacks” for me to be remotely comfortable with it.

Nor can I begin to fathom explanations for the rampant homophobia present among some racial minorities. We have learned of the response to integration fifty years ago where segregationists said, “If God wanted races to mix, he would’ve made them mixed.” Yet, certain minority men and women barely notice the irony when they label homosexuals “unnatural.”

Our sisters couldn’t even cast a vote in the United States until relatively recently, yet they had no problem shouting, “kill them niggers” in Montgomery fifty years ago. Some women have no problem calling gays a threat to the family, when arguments leveled against women’s suffrage just ninety years ago centered on the demise of the family that suffrage would inevitably bring.

How did we become so confused as a society? If I were to write a personal social justice manifesto, it would be this: All of our varied and beautiful adjectives (black, white; skinny, fat; straight, gay; man, woman; poor, wealthy, and on) are nothing compared to our shared noun: human. To fully realize the American Dream, and live up to America’s promises, we must focus on the noun we share while showing greater respect for the adjectives that we don’t.


Images from Day 7

May 16th, 2011

Day 8: Samantha Williams

May 16th, 2011


Day 8: Dispatch from Ray Arsenault

May 16th, 2011

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.