12/11/2013 3:57:50 PM
Retracing the Freedom Riders Route
Monday, May 23, 2011
On May 4, 1961, seven black and six white volunteers boarded Greyhound buses in Washington, D.C., headed for New Orleans to test compliance with a recent Supreme Court decision that said passengers in interstate travel could use waiting rooms and rest rooms without regard to race. This group became known as the Freedom Riders.
Fifty years after the original Freedom Ride, students from Siena College and Albany High School are retracing the route as part of a week-long Civil Rights study tour organized by Siena sociology professor Paul Murray, Ph.D. They will stop in Birmingham and Montgomery where the Freedom Riders were beaten by racist mobs. Their pilgrimage will end in Jackson, Mississippi, where more than 300 Freedom Riders were arrested and sent to prison. In Montgomery and Jackson they will participate in ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. At each stop on their trip they will meet with former Freedom Riders to learn first-hand about the historic events that permanently changed America’s racial climate.
The Siena students spent the semester studying about the Freedom Rides. They have read about the exploits of these nonviolent freedom fighters and viewed the “Eyes On the Prize” documentary video series. Now they will meet and talk with these heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.
Day 1 - May 19, 2011
"It was eerie," said Albany High School junior Tanisha Findley, after viewing an authentic Ku Klux Klan robe on display in the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. "To think that someone wore this robe as he was trying to put black people down is scary." Tanisha had read about the KKK in history books, but coming face-to-face with the costume once worn by an Alabama Klansman suddenly made an abstract image frightenly real.
The Siena group was among 250 people gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, yesterday for the opening of the Freedom Riders Museum. Many sixteen-year-olds idolize rock stars or professional athletes. However, Tanisha Findley counts one of her heroes as a seventy-one-year-old Freedom Rider named Jim Zwerg.
On May 20, 1961, Zwerg was among a brave band of college students arriving at Montgomery’s Greyhound bus station to see whether blacks and whites would be served without regard to their race. What they encountered was a vicious mob wielding clubs and iron pipes. Because white Freedom Riders were viewed as race traitors, members of the mob concentrated their fury on Zwerg, beating him until he lost consciousness.
“When I heard his story, I knew he was someone I wanted to meet. What he did took a lot of guts,” Findley said. They joined the Freedom Riders in singing the civil rights anthem, “Woke Up this Morning with My Mind on Freedom,” as they waited for the museum’s doors to officially open. Zwerg, however, was escorted through the museum ahead of the students and Findley was left without his autograph.
On Monday Findley will have another chance to meet her hero when the students will participate in the Freedom Riders 50th Anniversary celebration on the campus of Tougaloo College in Jackson. She is determined to talk with Jim Zwerg and discover where he found the courage to risk his life fighting for civil rights.
Day 3 - May 21
Annie Pearl Avery describes herself as a foot-soldier in the Civil Rights Movement. She was sixteen years old when the when the Freedom Riders came to her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama in 1961. Their example convinced her to join the young activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). For the next five years she was a SNCC field secretary, working on voter registration and organizing demonstrations in Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama. These days she works as a consultant with the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama.
On Saturday Avery met with students from Albany High School and Siena College. Hunter Harrison '11 was one of those listening to her story. “Talking with Annie Pearl Avery makes you realize that the Civil Rights Movement never would have been successful without the efforts of thousands of dedicated people like her,” he observed. “While the media focused all of their attention on a few key figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, the Movement depended on foot soldiers like Ms. Avery to win the battle against segregation.”
After their conversation with Avery, Harrison and the other students marched across Selma’s Edmund Pettus, retracing the same route taken by civil rights marchers on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965. They tried to imagine what Avery and the other demonstrators must have felt when they reached the crest of the bridge and saw state policemen and mountes sheriff’s deputies blocking their path. In solidarity with the Movement, they sang, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.”
Day 4 - May 22
Jordan Perez is an energetic Albany High School junior who is participating in the Civil Rights Study Tour. Jordan draws attention wherever she goes with her distinctive Mohawk haircut and her outgoing personality. For the past four days she has been making new friends across the generations as she visits sites made famous during the Civil Rights Movement.
The tour moved to Selma, Alabama, on Friday were Jordan met veteran civil rights worker, Annie Pearl Avery, at the National Voting Rights Museum. Ms. Avery described how she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1961 as a 16-year-old and dedicated the rest of her life to working for civil rights. Jordan and the other students then walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, retracing the route taken by civil rights marchers in 1965.
Sunday afternoon the study tour arrived in Canton, Mississippi, where Jordan made a new friend in Judge Mamie Chinn, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, who was elected to a seat on the Madison County Justice Court. Judge Chinn was delighted to meet young people from New York so eager to learn about the history of the Movement. At the conclusion of their dinner Jordan led the group in singing a medley of Freedom Songs including her favorite, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.”
Day 5 - May 23
Arriving on the Tougaloo College campus was like a homecoming for tour leader Paul Murray. In the summer of 1966, when he was working in rural Madison County, Tougaloo was a place of refuge—one of the few places in Mississippi where civil rights workers could feel secure. From 1972 to 1978, when he taught at Millsaps College, it was the scene of regular exchanges between faculty and students at the two institutions.
Day 6 - May 24
Picture a 70-year-old Freedom Rider dancing with a 17-year-old high school student. That’s what happened this evening when Nedeyah Gray from Albany High School joined the celebration at the end of the Freedom Riders’ banquet at the Jackson Convention Center. This party was the culmination of a day of intergenerational encounters.
Day 7- May 25
Jackson, Mississippi was the final stop on the itinerary. For Siena College Laura Dugan '12 it provided the opportunity to meet three individuals who have served as influential role models for the pre-law student.
The trip was made possible thanks to the following donors-
Touhey Family Foundation
Ray Newkirk and Christy D'Ambrosi
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