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Students Finish Tracing Freedom Ride Routes

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Fifty years ago, hundreds boarded buses in the South to challenge desegregation laws. They were met with violence and harassment. A group of forty students retraced the route of the historic freedom rides, and they end their journey today. Host Michel Martin discusses the trek with two of these students: Zilong Wang of Hampshire College and Lu-Anne Haukaas Lopez of the Uiversity of Alaska.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: Now we turn to another civil rights battle. Boarding a bus is not the kind of thing that makes headlines today, but for the Freedom Riders it was a tremendous act of courage. Fifty years ago, hundreds of people boarded buses and traveled across the Jim Crow South to challenge segregation there. They were met with violent mobs at some stops. Many were beaten, arrested and jailed for months.

Today, 40 college students from across the country, in fact, around the world, will end a journey to retrace the route of the historic Freedom Rides of 1961. That trip took them from Washington, D.C. through several states in the Deep South and it ends in New Orleans tonight.

One of the students on the journey is Charles Reed, Jr. When the tour stopped last Thursday in Anniston, Alabama, the site of a violent mob attack in 1961, Reed reflected on what the original Freedom Riders must have endured.

CHARLES REED, JR.: When I first went to Anniston, I had this eerie feeling and I'm still having this eerie feeling about being back here 50 years later, when a bus firebombed in an attempt to kill all the Freedom Riders on the bus, and that's something that I just cannot shake from my head.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about this trip, so we've called two of the students who are participating in it. Zilong Wang is a sophomore at Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts. He is an international student. He was born in Inner Mongolia, China. Also with us, Lu-Anne Haukaas Lopez is a student at the University of Alaska. She was born in South America where her parents were missionaries and she lived in rural Alaska before attending college in Anchorage. And they're both with us from Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson - one of the stops that the bus made today. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

ZILONG WANG: It's a pleasure to be here.

LU-ANNE HAUKAAS LOPEZ: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: And I'm sure that everyone wants to know, why did you want to make this trip? So, Zilong, why don't you start?

WANG: Yeah, I wanted to come on this trip, first, to learn about America. As a Chinese student here, I really see the future of China-U.S. foreign relation as one of the most important pair of foreign relations in the world. And to understand today's America and also America's future. I really need to go to back to its past, and I can't think of a better way to learn about America's past than to get on the bus myself.

MARTIN: Had you known about the Civil Rights Movement when you were growing up in China?

WANG: No. My only exposure to that period of time is the film "Forrest Gump." I've watched it four or five times, but I don't think that's the most accurate depiction of that period of time.

MARTIN: OK. Well, that's another conversation.

(soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But, Lu-Anne, what about you? Why did you want to participate in this journey?

LOPEZ: Well, reading about the Freedom Rides, I read a lot about Freedom Summer of '65 in Mississippi. And I hadn't read very much about the Freedom Rides. But reading more about it and hearing about the ages of these young people, how they were fresh out of high school, early college, I started thinking about my grandfather's generation, who had the sacrifices of, you know, in World War II, that generation and then my father's generation who had the sacrifices of the Civil Rights Movement. And I thought of my own generation, that we're known for video games and social networking.

And I think it's so important for us to have that connection with the older generation, to learn from their sacrifices. And at the same time say thank you. But at the same time, be galvanized to act for ourselves today.

MARTIN: And I understand that you will also be connecting at some point, or you have already with some of the original Freedom Riders, Lu-Anne.

LOPEZ: Yes, actually, we have been absolutely fortunate to have some incredible, original Freedom Riders on the bus with us the entire trip all the way from D.C. And several of the stops we have met up with some of the other Freedom Riders. And also some of the other civil rights leaders that led sit-ins in the '60s as well, and several other protests. So, yes, we have had a lot of contact with some of those original heroes.

MARTIN: And Zilong, I don't know how you think about the whole question of race, because, you know, obviously there are different ethnicities in China.

WANG: Yeah.

MARTIN: There are different religious groups in China. But I wonder - and, you know, there are conflicts and I think that, you know, we should not gloss over that fact - but I wonder if you think about the whole idea of what this ride meant and the idea that certain people couldn't use certain facilities because of their skin color. Is that just - does this just seem too ridiculous for words or is there some analogy that you use to try to understand what that was about?

WANG: Yeah, this is a great question. One reason why I got - get on the trip is I was shocked by my own imbedded racism. I think I'm international student - I have no knowledge about the black and white discrimination in the United States. But as I come to the U.S., I start to discover that I have all these stereotypes. I just can't think of I just can't think of where these things come from. And at the same time you mentioned race, this notion of race, I think to America, the racial issue is very black and white - this dichotomy. But in the rest of the world, for example, there is a linguistic nationalism in India or regional tension in Russia.

These racial or ethnic issues are very different in nature, but they also carry on the same power dynamics. So I think other country's problem can be - we can think about these problem by gaining inspiration from America's history.

MARTIN: And Zilong, can I just ask you, when you - Lu-Anne was telling us about how it was very moving to her to meet some of the original Freedom Riders, what was that like for you?

WANG: It's very - this is a very inspirational process. I'm extremely impressed by how modest and how humble these Freedom Riders are. And in comparison, we the younger generation, up till this point, we have really done nothing - we have been taking in the resources of the society. We are so fortunate to go on this trip and be put into nice hotel and be served all the time. So if we don't start to put the energy back into the system, the system won't working. So I think this is a very humbling and very enlightening process to make us realize how much is at stake and we have to put back to the system.

MARTIN: Lu-Anne, I heard that you were nodding your agreement there. But I understand that this journey was actually kind of fun, in a way. It sounds kind of fun. I mean, you got to hang out with some very cool people. You sang freedom songs. You created raps. There were some impromptu poetry slams. You had wireless Internet. You slept in hotels.

LOPEZ: Some days.

MARTIN: Well, some days, OK. Well, that's a hardship right there.

(soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And got to sleep in hotels without worrying, you know, from one place to the next of whether you would, in fact, be able to stop and be treated. And I just wondered how you balanced that with the seriousness of the journey. And I understand that you grew up in rural - two rural environments. So you're used to doing without a lot of luxuries yourself.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, your parents were missionaries. But how did you kind of balance that out between, you know, your actual circumstances and what you know, the people who came before you, experienced.

LOPEZ: That is also a really good question. I've been thinking and reflecting a lot about this. See, we wear, you know, these nametags and these T-shirts that say Freedom Riders everywhere we go. And I started feeling, especially when I spent time with some of the original Freedom Riders, very unworthy of this brand. Because I'm not a Freedom Rider. I don't feel like a Freedom Rider. I hear these stories that these men and women were beaten. They have the scars to show it. They tell stories of smuggling pencils in underneath their hair, you know, so they could write formulas on the walls of their cells in Parchment Prison.

These incredible stories of going without and sacrifice. And I think to myself, I get on the bus, I don't have to worry about where I sit, with whom I sit. I can walk into any restaurant and be served. I can walk into any bathroom and use it. And I have absolutely no comprehension of what they went without and the struggles that they went through. And so I think to myself, I'm not a Freedom Rider. I want to be. I want to have that passion.

And I can't help but be moved when I speak to Charles and Rip and Jones, some of the original Freedom Riders. And I want to have that kind of passion and that kind of motivation, that kind of self-sacrifice that just...

MARTIN: And I know this is still very new, and we only have about two minutes left and I'd like to hear from each of you before we let you both go. How do you think - and I realize this is very new - how do you think you'll incorporate this experience into what you do next?

LOPEZ: Well, one thing we've really focused on is the concept of non-violence. And growing up I heard about non-violence, but I often thought of it as the absence of violence. But having some of these original Freedom Riders on board, they were trained in non-violence and they told us and we were learning just from watching their lives that non-violence is not the absence of violence, but the presence of love.

And I know that sounds very abstract, but when you see these people's lives, like Zilong said, so humble - they live what they say. And that concept of taking the presence of love into your daily interaction and into your interaction nationally, your interaction socially, every interaction have the presence of love. Diane Nash told us, ask yourself, is this the loving thing to do? And she said that's what they would ask themselves before they would go in for a sit-in, is this the loving thing to do? Is this me loving my adversary? Is this me loving my own people?

And if we take that question, I know it does sound very abstract, but it does have the power to change.

MARTIN: Zilong, we only have a minute left. How do you think you'll incorporate this into your future experiences?

WANG: I totally agree. I come on this trip with an eye on the future. And I totally believe that non-violence, this notion to be introduced also to the East in China. Because China is about to embrace more openness and more social reform. And how we can navigate this system without destroying what we have achieved in the past 60 years. Have these peaceful transitions into a more open society. I think the notion non-violence would really help us.

And at the same time we just mentioned how we are having quite a luxurious trip, but we are also going through some intellectual struggle. Intellectual violence. We are really questioning our beliefs very hard. And we realize that we are facing greater challenge and greater problems that the original Freedom Riders aren't facing.

For example, today's violence is invisible and how do we identify who - where the evil? How to provide a helpful solution? That would take more wisdom and perseverance.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much, both of you, for talking with us. We really enjoyed it. Zilong Wang is a sophomore at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Lu-Anne Haukaas Lopez is a student at the University of Alaska. They are two of the 40 students who retraced the historic Freedom Rides of 1961. They were with us from Jackson, Mississippi. And if you'd like to hear our conversation with two of the original Freedom Riders, just go to our website. Go to, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

Thank you both so much for joining us. And good luck to you both and your future endeavors.

LOPEZ: Thank you so much.

WANG: Thank you.

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