50th anniversary of Freedom Riders

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Freedom Riders campaign – white activists who were determined to strike a blow for civil rights. On May 4, 1961, they boarded buses bound for New Orleans, intent on challenging segregation laws along the way.
At the time, a federal law mandated that all interstate transportation (such as Greyhound buses) be integrated. But in Alabama, Mississippi and other Southern states, the law was not enforced.
Of course, there were African-Americans who were part of the Freedom Rider campaign as well, but the point hinged on white people. The strategy was to force police in the South to defend segregation by arresting, jailing and, in many cases, beating other white people, thus causing an embarrassing spectacle.
Freedom Rider John Raines, now professor emeritus of religion at Temple University, was not part of the initial wave of activists – he boarded a bus out of St. Louis in July, when the violence awaiting Freedom Riders was well publicized.
Raines was part of a foursom – two white, two black – that got off in Little Rock, Ark., and went into the “white only” waiting room. They were promptly arrested for disturbing the peace.
“It would be a trial by a judge – not a jury. His name was Quinn Glover. That’s his real name” – said Raines with a chuckle. “He took us into his chambers and said: ‘I’m going to find you guilty and I want you to know why. I know the Supreme Court has already decided that interstate travel facilities must be integrated. But I’m going to find you guilty because if I don’t find you guilty, I won’t get re-elected.’ ”

50th anniversary of Freedom Riders
Freedom Riders.

Fifty years ago, one of the most important moments in civil rights history began on the streets of D.C. with the daring and historic freedom rides in protest of segregation.
Mayor Vincent Gray honored three freedom riders for their courage Wednesday.
More than 400 civil rights activists boarded buses in 1961 to challenge segregation policies that plagued interstate travel.
Abdul Aziz and Joan Mulholland were among them. They haven’t seen each other in half a century ‘We didn’t know that we were history making. We didn’t know, as we do today, that we pushed it. We truly pushed it’ – said freedom rider Dion Diamond.
This non-violent campaign met with iron resistance in the deep South: beatings in Birmingham, riots in Montgomery and a bus set ablaze in Anniston.
“Even though we knew it was dangerous, this was more than we could imagined, to try to burn people alive on Mother’s Day” – said Mulholland.
Mulholland, now retired in Arlington, was arrested in Jackson, Miss., along with then-Howard University students Diamond and Aziz. They were imprisoned for months.
“I was shaken to the core because death was only a breath away. That’s how close they were to killing us” – said Aziz.

Erica Shekell is about to go on the ride of a lifetime.
The Michigan State University junior was selected among 1,000 applicants to take part in the PBS American Experience 2011 Freedom Ride. The ride celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Rides, during which a diverse group of men and women peacefully protested racism and segregation by riding together on busses through the Deep South. On their well-publicized journey, they faced violence, discrimination and even imprisonment. Their story is the subject of a PBS documentary, ‘Freedom Riders,’ that will air on PBS’s American Experience program on May 16 at 9 p.m.
Shekell and 39 other students will travel along the same route as the original Freedom Riders from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans from May 6 to May 16. Shekell said she’s particularly excited to meet some of the original riders who are making the trip with the students.
“I’m also really interested in getting to know the other students, because a lot of them have done absolutely incredible things on their campuses and in their communities” – Shekell said.
Shekell, who first became interested in civil rights as a high school student in Howell, has an impressive resume like the rest of the students on the trip. The journalism and media arts major is enrolled in the Honor’s College and is an active member of MSU’s PRIDE – People Respecting Individuality, Diversity and Equality. She’s also on MSU’s planning committee for the 2011 Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender and Allies College Conference. Thanks to the committee, MSU will host the conference in 2013.

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