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It was 50 years ago this spring that 13 people boarded a bus in Washington, D.C. The Freedom Riders as they were called - challenged segregation on buses and in waiting rooms throughout the South. Some of those riders are reliving those experiences with a generation that grew up long after that era. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES: Joan Trumpauer Mulholland stood alongside her fellow Freedom Riders, staring at a picture of a black man on a bus, flanked by two National Guardsmen.

Ms. JOAN TRUMPAUER MULHOLLAND (Freedom Rider): There's Dave Dennis looking up at the guys with the bayonets.

KEYES: The picture was among the many framed in the windows of a 1960s-era bus sitting in the middle of the University of Mary Washington's Fredericksburg, Virginia campus. The Freedom Riders, and some students, examined photos showing the struggles of the more than 400 Freedom Riders who risked their lives in non-violent protests beginning in May 1961.

Drew Radtke, a senior historic preservation major, says one of the central questions for students here has been would you get on the bus?

Mr. DREW RADTKE (Student, University of Mary Washington): In hindsight, everybody would say, yeah, of course I would. But it comes down to, you know, why would I get on the bus?

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Singing) I'm on my way, oh Lord, to freedom land.

KEYES: It's a good question, considering what the original Freedom Riders endured. In Alabama, one of the buses carrying them was firebombed and they were beaten as they fled the flames. More mob attacks followed, including a siege by several thousand angry whites at Montgomery's First Baptist Church. Reverend Reginald Green and many others were inspired by the courage of the first group of Freedom Riders.

Reverend REGINALD GREEN (Freedom Rider): Many of us just caught the spark after we learned about Anniston and Birmingham and Montgomery. Hey, we want to participate in this thing too. So we heard the call and many of us decided we were going.

KEYES: At an evening panel discussion with several Freedom Riders, they were asked whether they had expected some sort of moral transformation in the hearts of their white attackers. Charles Person answered. He joined the original freedom rides as an 18-year-old Morehouse College freshman.

Mr. CHARLES PERSON (Freedom Rider): We knew that the situations presented a chance for violence. But being so young, I would not think that an adult would beat up on a kid. I couldn't understand the violence and the intensity that these people exhibited.

Ms. CATHERINE BURKS-BROOKS (Freedom Rider): Fear, I think, was the main thing with a number of students and a number of adults.

KEYES: Catherine Burks-Brooks, then 21, was caught in the riot at the Greyhound bus station and the attack on the Baptist church in Montgomery.

Ms. BURKS-BROOKS: Once you're not afraid of dying and then what else? You can go into Mississippi, Alabama.

KEYES: Back outside at the bus, students have been signing three large panels asking them to consider whether they'd have joined the rides. It's an interactive part of this exhibit commemorating James Farmer, who as head of the Congress of Racial Equality organized the freedom rides and later taught history and American studies here.

Erica Smith-Thomas, a Spanish major, isn't sure she'd have had the courage to ride.

Ms. ERICA SMITH-THOMAS (Student, University of Mary Washington): The people who participated really had their lives changed.

KEYES: But she thinks events like this are important and not just because they allow students here a glimpse of history outside of their textbooks.

Ms. SMITH-THOMAS: Many Americans, black and white, seem to think, oh, we're done with this now. It happened. It's over. But they really don't connect with the fact that civil rights is still a huge issue in this country.

KEYES: Joan Trumpauer Mulholland was a 19-year-old white student when she was arrested in 1961, and says she hopes the exhibits here inspire young people now to deal with the problems of today. That, she says, would be a tribute to the Freedom Riders who have passed on.

Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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