“Boarding that Greyhound bus to travel through the heart of the Deep South, I felt good. I felt happy. I felt liberated. I was like a soldier in a nonviolent army. I was ready.”
Today, Congressman John Lewis is serving his twelfth term representing Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives. But in May 1961 he was a twenty-one-year-old student leader from American Baptist College in Nashville who volunteered to join the interracial group traveling through the South by bus to test the recent Supreme Court decision banning segregation in interstate travel. As a result, he was attacked by angry mobs for entering “Whites-only” waiting rooms, left unconscious on a bus station floor in Montgomery, Alabama after being hit in the head with a wooden Coca-Cola crate, arrested in Jackson, Mississippi for trespassing and disturbing the peace, and sentenced to time at Mississippi’s notorious Parchment State Prison Farm.
Congressman Lewis was one of the Freedom Riders—more than 400 Black and White volunteers, mostly young people, who risked their lives and freedom to face down segregation in the Deep South. The original group, organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), began with thirteen riders who left Washington, D.C. on May 4 with plans to arrive in New Orleans on May 17 on the seventh anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. By the time the Freedom Rides actually ended months later, many in the original group had been beaten, brutalized, or arrested, and buses they rode on had been firebombed and destroyed. But at every step brave new determined volunteers traveled to meet them and take their places. The Freedom Rides brought national attention to the cause, led Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the Justice Department to strengthen the laws outlawing segregation in interstate travel, and marked a crucial early turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. The fiftieth anniversary this month of the start of the Freedom Rides is receiving widespread national attention, in part thanks to the powerful new documentary film “Freedom Riders” by award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, which chronicles the entire bold and dangerous journey.
One of the important lessons in this documentary is how integral students and young people were to the Freedom Rides, just as they were to the sit-ins, marches, voter registration drives, and every other piece of the Civil Rights Movement. Those of us in my generation were blessed to be in the right places at the right times to experience and help bring transforming change to the South and to America, and we seized that opportunity and responsibility. Today, the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) is helping train the next generation of young leaders through our youth leadership development programs, including our Young Advocate Leadership Training (YALT®) Program. We’re so proud that Michael Tubbs, one of our young YALT leaders, was among the students selected to ride on the 2011 Student Freedom Ride bus that will retrace the Freedom Rides starting on May 6 and end up in New Orleans on May 16th.
We also are taking the next step forward with the CDF Freedom Schools® program, rooted in the Civil Rights Movement’s Mississippi Freedom Summer 1964, and the efforts of college students to make a difference. Today, the CDF Freedom Schools program trains college-aged young people to provide quality summer and after-school enrichment through a model curriculum that supports children and families around five essential components: high quality academic enrichment; parent and family involvement; social action and civic engagement; intergenerational servant leadership development; and nutrition, health, and mental health. About 90,000 children have had a CDF Freedom Schools experience since 1995 and 9,000 college teacher-mentors have been trained to serve them. The ongoing deep need in communities across the country for many, many more CDF Freedom Schools programs reminds us that today we don’t have to travel to Alabama or Mississippi to make a difference. Legal segregation has ended, but inequality is alive and well and school segregation still exists and is resurging all over America. Without a good education, millions of America’s 15.5 million poor children will remain poor throughout their lives and many will become trapped in the Cradle to Prison Pipeline® crisis that leads to dropping out of school, arrest, and incarceration at earlier and earlier ages. This is the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement, and the powerful example of heroes and heroines like the Freedom Riders is a reminder to us all that there is work to be done.
The world premiere of the “Freedom Riders” documentary will be presented by American Experience on PBS television stations May 16. CDF is hosting a live and virtual “Watch Party” that evening to celebrate this important event. We’ll gather with an audience at Howard University for a conversation that will be streamed online starting at 8:30 PM EST, a half-hour before the documentary starts. After the film, audience members will be able to participate in a live question and answer session with several of the original Freedom Riders, including Bernard Lafayette, Jr. and Lenora Taitt-Magubane. Join us on the Web on Monday, May 16th from 8:30 PM – 11:30 PM EST for this free special event wherever you are! Host your own “watch party” at home, at a community center, or in your place of worship, and share in the inspiration of the Freedom Riders and their lessons for today.