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

Day 9: The Storytelling of Trust

May 16th, 2011

By Rajlakshmi De

Tell me a story, from the heart.

We stopped in Selma, Alabama today and heard from Mrs. O’Neill, a community member who was active during the civil rights era. The first few minutes of our session with her were very formal and factual, but as we progressed, Mrs. O’Neill answered our questions with increasing insight. The more trust we built, the deeper she delved.

The economic situation is bleak, she said. Races have segregated into separate churches, separate schools. Being ostracized is a concern.

I was really moved by her descriptions of present-day disparities, and was also compelled by how her openness was such an integral component of our understanding of Selma.

How often are we open and honest about the current state of situations? How much are we withholding?

When I think of poverty, I don’t think of a statistic. I think of the frail men who cart me around in rikshas, tensing their leg muscles as they peddle me along, so that I may pay them less than a dollar’s worth of currency. I think of how tempting it is to overpay them. I also think of how that would do little to reduce systemic poverty.

When I think of girls’ empowerment, I don’t think of the illiteracy rate or the prevalence of HIV. I think of stories—of gender roles, of oppressive environments, of strong women.

If society is not engaged in world affairs, in civics, in the future, maybe we could all benefit from more genuine conversations, more storytelling from the heart. I am hopeful that we can make progress, but we need a reason to care.

The Singletons in Jackson

May 16th, 2011

Images from Day 6

May 16th, 2011

Day 9: Rachael DeMarce

May 16th, 2011

Freedom Riders Poster Series

May 16th, 2011

I am thankful for Jake Andrews, a graphic design student, artist, and friend at The University of Alabama, for creating this poster series about the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.

Jake and I have collaborated on a variety of projects over the past four years, so when I decided to start a blog for the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, he was the obvious choice to create a header. We briefly talked about the purpose of the blog, and then he went to work.

When I saw his work a few days later, my jaw dropped. He had managed to capture the spirit of the trip through design. He offered to design other pieces for the trip, so I took him up on it.

This series is his creation. His own words describe the power of the series:

I used the key words that you wanted and highlighted the routes that the Freedom Riders took. I used a map of all the routes that Freedom Riders took during the period… not the one specific to the first route though.

It’s kind of hard to explain the concept that I came up with in words. It’s something you’ll just have to see. The individual posters might be a little confusing at first, but when you put them all together they complete the image of the routes of the Freedom Riders in the 60s.

I think the key to the series is not focusing on individual posters as much as how the series is completed once all the posters are put together.

Our hope is that you will share these with your friends & family. Please use this series to connect others with the spirit of the Freedom Riders from 1961 to 2011!

Marshall Houston

Day 8: Kaitlyn Whiteside

May 16th, 2011

Day 8: Civil Rights Movement Still in Motion

May 16th, 2011

By Doaa Dorgham

As I sit here on this Greyhound bus, in the exact location where the original Freedom Riders were greeted with pure hatred, flames, and beatings, I feel as though I have been hit with a whirlwind of indescribable emotion. Today the scene was entirely different from the one fifty years ago. We were greeted with cameras, smiles, and a sign that recognized the atrocity that took place in Anniston, Alabama.

Although I was experiencing such painstaking raw emotion, celebration was the last thing that was plaguing my heart. Although the Freedom Riders made magnificent strides, I grapple with the façade that we as a country no longer live with discrimination and are free of internal hatred.

In the shuffle of media, congressmen, and student riders, I got off the bus and stepped on the very ground of heroes and foes. I then realized one of the youngest original Riders, Charles Person, remained on the bus. The moment that we shared together was one that I will never forget. As I sat next to him, I was immediately drawn to his eyes, which were filled with tears that were unable to surface. As we began to reflect, I was able to see the pureness of such an admirable soul.

I struggled to find the right words to explain my gratitude. The words “thank you” are not enough to honor someone who risked his life for change. He spoke to me about the love he had in his heart and how amidst an angry mob threatening his life he never felt hatred, simply love. It was in that moment that I adopted a new philosophy of life.

The idea of love is something that is so glamorized in our society, that it has lost context. Love to me is something that represents sheer strength. Pure love is found in forgiveness and reconciliation. Pure love is so extraordinarily rare, that it is no surprise that the Freedom Riders were able to use that emotion to conquer the abhorrence ingrained in the doctrine of segregation. He then turned to me and told me that it is up to me, and this generation, to continue the civil rights movement, because it is far from over.

It was at the moment that I vowed to myself, that I will attempt to live my life with this idea of pure love, and use that raw emotion to administer change. There is so much hatred, bigotry, anger and discrimination in this world, but I refuse to feed into that commonality. The problem with this generation is this idea of apathy. But when young adults are able to interact with older generations, who believe in us full-heartedly, the idea that we cannot administer change is quickly dissolved. The words “thank you” are not enough to honor these incredible heroes, but continuing their legacy by adamantly moving forward is a start.

Images from Day 5

May 16th, 2011

Day 8: Collis Crews

May 16th, 2011

Day 8: Anna Nutter

May 16th, 2011

Day 8: We Could Be the Devil, and We Already Are

May 15th, 2011

By Zilong Wang

As we travel through the southern states in America, we are greeted with the famous southern hospitality. We are almost surprised by the warm welcome in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, etc. At the same time of being thankful to people’s niceness, I can’t help thinking: how could these people be the same mob that had ruthlessly beaten the Freedom Riders and burned buses in 1961, not to mention the lynchings and the whole institution of racial crime? In the end, the Southerners are also people who love their families and care about their children. How could this love be translated into cruelty and hatred to some other people?

To answer this question, let us fast forward our clock by 50 years. Now we all think of ourselves as pretty nice people, but this is what our grandchildren will ask us in the year 2061: “Grandpa, how could you have damaged our earth so badly fifty years ago, and leave me with no choice and no future? How could you have allowed your government to kill so many people in countries far, far away in name of democracy? Don’t you know that every time you fill the gas tank of your SUV, you are overdrafting our energy future, and fueling your car with the blood of thousands of soldiers and millions of innocent people in the Middle East?” In fifty years, our grandchildren will look at our life and society in 2011 with shock and disgust: shocked by our consumerism and indifference to the environment, disgusted by our self-righteousness and inaction. Our grandchildren will ask, “Grandpa, how come you did nothing to help despite the repeated warnings from so many people?”

Faced with our grandchildren’s questions, what will be our answer? Will we regret, will we be shamed? Are we going to be the devil that we are condemning now? Are we already the devil that we are trying to fight?

Day 8: Montgomery, Alabama

May 15th, 2011

By Kaitlyn Whiteside

I came on the ride as a history major; I’ll leave as a patriot.

My fascination with the civil rights movement started in 2009 when I began an independent research project on the desegregation of Chattanooga, TN. I continued to study the evolution of the expanding movement during the rest of my time at Georgia Tech as I engaged more and more both inside and outside the classroom. This year, as Vice President of Campus Affairs for the Student Government Association, I initiated and organized a campus-wide event focused on civility and inclusion attended by over 300 students. I also drafted a proposal advocating for a campus cultural center at Georgia Tech.

And yet, for the most part, my involvement was simply surface level. I didn’t truly understand the potential impact that I, or my projects, could have. I went through the motions, implementing changes that I thought were necessary but without the overwhelming passion that my fellow student freedom riders seem to possess. For that, I thank them. I thank them because they’ve inspired me in ways that I didn’t expect, inciting energy and desire that I forgot I could have. I’m not sure if it is the environment, the diversity of the group, or simply the awe-inspiring presence of the original Freedom Riders, but something is in the air that allows a free-flowing exchange of ideas that is unlike any experience I’ve ever had the opportunity to take part in.

While I won’t be going back to make sweeping changes on my campus, I hope that the lessons I learned here will take root in my life and evolve into the same sort of intoxicating passion that allowed the 1961 Riders to risk their lives to “get on the bus.”

Day 7: Lily

May 15th, 2011

By Diana Mahoney

Oversized plaques, encased exhibits, multi-colored murals, all in an effort to convey stories of what has been. Attempts to unpack the past, to inspire the future. Millions of dollars poured into glossy photographs and stimulating exhibits. Our abridged attempts to give explanations to the “whys” of what has been. To unravel the complicated web of the stories we have tangled together over the centuries.

Once upon a time, before we understood inhibitions or colors or hate, we were her. Neither the tension in the air nor the black and white pictures of a burning bus adorning the brightly lit walls of the town’s new exhibit bother her as she toddles back and forth between the rows of adults. Adults who are attempting to make peace, to reconcile a half-century-old story.

Cookie crumbs clinging to her little hands, she reaches out to me to pick her up. I lift her up, tiny billowing white sundress and all and am greeted by two huge, beautiful brown eyes.

“Hi.” I say. Because it’s the best thing I can come up with to say to an almost-two-year-old. She stares back at me before wrapping her tiny arms around my neck and I feel her soft heartbeat as she snuggles close. She pulls back and looks deeply into my eyes and points at the tall, hulking frame of a man across the room.

“Grandpa.” She says.

“Grandpa.” I repeat it back to her. A contagious smile spreads across her little face and I can’t help but smile back. The man she is pointing at, the hero of the evening, is Hank Thomas, whose first greeting from Anniston was in a blazing Greyhound bus surrounded by a jeering, violent mob fifty years before. Whose physical presence is bringing a whole new dimension to my understanding of history and the people it takes to make change possible.

“Monuments aren’t about buildings or plaques. They’re about the people that are walking around. They’re you, and you, and you. Because you are the ones who are living testament to what we fought for.” Charles Person, one of the original Freedom Riders confided in us late one night as we sat around on mix-matched chairs talking about forgiveness and reconciliation with the nature of people.

We’re all monuments. Because we stand testament to the stories of those who came before us, through our lives we bring remembrance to the stories of those who have come and those who have gone. We are evidence that they were here. That their stories, their struggles, their sacrifices, were not in vain. Our lives, living, breathing, passionate monuments whose everyday existence stands testament to the future they unswervingly and faithfully believed someday would be.

As the program draws to a close a man stands in the center of the crowd. Choked up with emotion, he turns toward Hank Thomas and admits that his father was part of the mob that brutally beat Hank fifty years before. The men embrace for a moment before Hank releases him, reaches down and swoops Lily up.

Lily’s that monument. I’m that monument. You’re that monument. Museums, plaques, statues cannot come close to displaying the effect of the past on today the way we can. The sacrifices, dreams and desires of yesterday are manifested in the way that we walk, and talk and think today.

The three of them embrace in a moment that takes my breath away. Lily stares first at her grandfather then at the other man. Her eyes wide, questioning. She wiggles out of Hank’s arms as he sets her down on the floor. She takes one good, long look around the room, and then, suddenly, she begins to dance.

Images from Day 4

May 15th, 2011

Day 7: The Birmingham Visit

May 15th, 2011

By Charles Reed Jr.

Today was the day that the PBS 2011 Student Freedom Rides bus visited Birmingham, Alabama. While in Birmingham, our first stop was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This museum highlighted the struggles of the civil rights movement with its exquisite exhibits. Hearing the audio to some of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches empowered me to remain active in the fight for social justice. The longer I remain a part of this wonderful, unique, and educational experience, I know that we must all somehow become involved in helping others realize their power as young leaders of today.

Following our visit to the Civil Rights Institute, the bus went to 16th Street Baptist Church where four young, innocent girls were killed when the church was bombed in 1963. In reflecting on the bombing, it is difficult to grasp the reality of how cruel the segregationists were during that turbulent time in American history. They seemed to have no regard for human life, especially for African Americans. For some reason, they were fearful of change and were willing to use violence to cope with this fear.

During the day, we also had the opportunity to listen to Catherine Burks-Brooks, an original 1961 Freedom Rider, as she discussed her involvement in the civil rights movement. Her stories of the experiences she had during the movement were sincere yet filled with humor. She had this aura that captivated us as an audience. Her enthusiasm about empowering today’s youth was the highlight of her presentation.

Before my visit to the 16th Street Baptist Church, I didn’t know whether or not I would get emotional during this experience. This evening when we revisited the church for a gospel choir concert, I had my answer. As I sang along with the choir, the words of choir made me a bit teary eyed. These Freedom Riders sacrificed so much for me so that I would have the opportunities that I have today. I also thought about my grandmother who grew up during the civil rights movement and how she only wanted the best for me in life. I know she would be proud to see how far I have come and I wish she were here to see it. As we continue on this ride, I will always remember to appreciate those who have come before me and keep their legacy alive.

Day 7: Bakhrom Ismoilov

May 15th, 2011