Freedom Riders Roll Again, with Students on Board
JACKI LYDEN, host:
More than 45 years ago, hundreds of civil rights activists began riding buses through the American South. The goal of their Freedom Ride campaign was to test the Supreme Court ruling desegregating interstate travel. This weekend, some of the original freedom riders returned to Interstate 65 on four buses. They took along more than 100 Nashville area college students for a rolling civil rights lecture. NPR's Audie Cornish joined them and filed this story.
Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): You see, you didn't have any of these buildings. This is all new.
AUDIE CORNISH: Georgia Congressman John Lewis is trying to conjure up an image from one of the most important days of his life.
Rep. LEWIS: Oh, I could tell when we got here. When we arrived, I knew something was not right. 10:30 in the morning, you didn't see people.
Unidentified Man #1: And beyond that.
Unidentified Man #2: And the police officers backed away as soon as they came across the city line.
CORNISH: Lewis and former Justice Department official John Seigenthaler lean against the windows of the crowded passenger bus. They try to describe what's left of the Montgomery Bus Terminal, where they were both attacked by an angry white mob more than 45 years ago. The dingy one story terminal is abandoned, except flickering slips of yellow paper taped to the windows and a gilded plaque posted out front.
Unidentified Man #3: Could someone read it out?
Unidentified Man #4: On May 20, 1961, a group of black and white (unintelligible) members led by John Lewis left Birmingham bound for Montgomery on a Greyhound bus. They was determined to continue the freedom ride from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans...
CORNISH: Back then, Lewis was a student at American Baptist College and a major player in Nashville's student led civil rights movement. Seigenthaler, meanwhile, worked for the Kennedy administration. He was there to watch over the freedom riders and persuade segregationist governors to provide the group safe passage.
Today, the two ride comfortably, side by side in the front seat of a bus full of Nashville-area college students eager to hear their stories.
Ms. MEMENDE JOHNSON(ph) (Graduate Student, Vanderbilt University): I guess my question - what did it feel like as they were riding on the bus to Alabama? What, like - basically, what was going through their heads? And once you made that decision and you're on the way, what are you thinking as you're approaching (unintelligible)? What were you feeling at that moment?
CORNISH: Memende Johnson is a Vanderbilt grad student who signed up for this live-action civil rights seminar. Each bus includes one of the ride organizers, like Reverend C. T. Vivian and former student leader Diane Nash. One of the original volunteers, James Werg(ph), was attacked in Montgomery in May, 1961. In press footage from the time, he spoke from his hospital bed.
(Soundbite of recording)
Mr. JAMES WERG (Former Civil Rights Activist): Don't take (unintelligible), don't take pity. We're willing to accept death, but we're going to keep coming until we can ride from anywhere in the South to anyplace else in the South.
(Present) Well, interestingly enough, that interview, I don't remember.
CORNISH: Today, the Wisconsin native says he's proud of what he did that summer, when he joined the Nashville student movement.
Mr. WERG: I got involved in it because I saw that that system was wrong and evil and bad and needed changing. Talk's cheap. Sometimes, sooner or later, you've got to stand up and be counted.
CORNISH: Congressman John Lewis says the goal of this latter-day freedom ride is to help students understand the mindset and the strategy behind the campaign.
Rep. LEWIS: Not romanticize the freedom ride, but to take the techniques, to take the tactics, to take the philosophy and build them to make the society better.
CORNISH: Student activist Corey Ponder(ph), a Vanderbilt senior, does draw this lesson.
Mr. COREY PONDER (Senior, Vanderbilt University): I just feel like sometimes your voice is not heard, especially with the way that the government seems to be working these days. Even when you vote, it's not making a difference, but it just seems like after this, that that's not true. That's just a very general statement, because if you wanted to make your voice heard, you could make it heard.
CORNISH: The 430 freedom riders back in 1961 did make a difference. By November of that year, the Interstate Commerce Commission, prodded by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, issued a federal order enforcing the earlier Supreme Court ruling that banned segregation in all interstate transportation facilities.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, Birmingham, Alabama.
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