Some paid the ultimate price in the fight for equal rights
December 1, 2010
By Kate Pastor
In the spring of 1961, 13 volunteers boarded one Greyhound and one
Trailways bus in Washington, D.C.
By the time they arrived in Birmingham, Ala. weeks later, the
Greyhound bus had been burned by a caravan of Klu Klux Klansmen.
There, the Trailway bus was attacked by another mob at the station.
Riders, bystanders and reporters were severely beaten as police stood
by. The volunteers wanted to keep on going, but no driver would take
them to New Orleans. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had to send his
special assistant to fly the group safely out of Alabama.
The first freedom riders included seven blacks, six whites, eight
southerners and five northerners, ranging in age from 18 to 61. They
set out to test two Supreme Court decisions that had made racial
segregation in interstate travel illegal, but which were being
largely ignored in the South. Before they left they received
non-violence training and signed this waver:
"I wish to apply for acceptance as a participant in CORE's Freedom
Ride, 1961, to travel via bus from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans,
Louisiana and to test and challenge segregated facilities en route. I
understand that I shall be participating in nonviolent protest
against racial discrimination, that arrest or personal injury to me
That initial trip is just a few panels of the story told by a new
photo exhibition on display at Lehman College's Leonard Lief Library
in commemoration of the freedom rides. Created by Gilder Lehrman
Institute of American History and PBS's history series American
Experience and funded through a National Endowment for the Humanities
grant, the exhibition like that first ride is just making its
first stop on a national tour that includes 20 sites.
It is being shown in conjunction with the May 2011 release of Freedom
Riders, a PBS documentary directed by Stanley Nelson. American
Experience is also organizing forums and a 2011 Student Freedom Ride
to take 40 college students on a seven state tour of significant locations.
The story they, and those who attend the exhibit, will learn is one
of struggle, but not defeat.
There were more rides, still.
Even after CORE leader James Farmer and the U.S. Justice Department
tried to stop them, a group of riders from Nashville, Tenn. were
organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee to travel
to New Orleans via Birmingham.
They were sent to the hospital, suffered a standoff inside a
Montgomery Baptist Church in which 400 federal marshals could not
protect them from a mob of white supremacists armed with bricks and
The first ride departed in May, and by the summertime activists from
all walks of life hundreds of religious figures, college students,
mothers and fathers had joined the movement. There were 10 trips in
total, and the advent of television meant that racially diverse
groups being beaten, attacked by dogs and arrested for trying to sit
together on buses and at lunch counters, consumed the nation.
"In each city they were attacked and in some cities they were
arrested for breach of the peace. They were peaceful," said Susan F.
Saidenberg, director of public programs and exhibitions for the
Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and a curator of the exhibition.
Their bravery had a significant impact on desegregation, she said.
And by promoting confrontational, nonviolent action, they laid the
groundwork for social movements to follow, including the women's
movement, anti-Vietnam war movements and the gay rights movement.
Ms. Saidenberg said she hoped to share that history. "The past is
always unfinished business," she said.
The opening on Monday included a talk to Lehman College students, in
which she and others detailed the rides exhibited with black and
white photos. The exhibition also included a lot of informative text.
It discusses the Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther
King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
For those that can't make it to Lehman before the show moves on, a
call-in number provides a way to learn about the freedom rides from
those who were directly involved.
Call 617-245-3907 and dial any number between 1 and 6, followed by
the pound sign, to hear from people including freedom rider John
Lewis and coordinator Diane Nash.
Where to see it
The exhibition will run until Dec. 15 in the Leonard Lief Library on
the campus of Lehman College, 250 Bedford Park Boulevard West, and is
a companion to a forthcoming 'American Experience' film on PBS.
Exhibit hours are Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m. - 9:45 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m.
- 6:45 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. - 5:45 p.m.; and Sunday, noon - 7:45 p.m.
Visitors can use their cell phones to access first-hand audio
accounts of this dangerous experiment in the fight for civil rights.