FREDERICKSBURG, VA - With a 1960s-era bus and historical photos of the 1961 Freedom Rides as a backdrop, two of the Freedom Riders urged students to apply the lessons of the civil rights movement to today’s causes, kicking off the University of Mary Washington’s semester-long tribute to the Freedom Rides.
“I hope you can find what you will step up for,” Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland of Arlington, Va. told the crowd of more than 600 gathered at Ball Circle. As a college student, Mulholland joined the 1961 Freedom Rides “to make my home, the South, what it could be and should be.”
Mulholland and fellow Freedom Rider Reginald Green traveled to UMW for the launch of the university’s 50th-anniversary commemoration of the 1961 rides that challenged segregated bus transportation throughout the South. The architect and leader of the rides was James L. Farmer Jr., the late civil rights leader and UMW professor.
“Now it is the challenge of all of us—young people, college students—to find some project, some issue, that you are passionate about. Maybe it’s hunger, maybe it’s ecology, maybe it’s education,” Rev. Reginald Green of Washington, D.C. told the crowd. To hearty applause, he added, “Maybe it’s the message that says we’ve come too far to turn back now.”
The university placed a 40-foot-long bus on Ball Circle to serve as a canvas for large historical photos, including images of firebombed buses and the brutal beatings of Freedom Riders by Southern mobs. Through March 31, visitors are encouraged to share their thoughts about the rides and the “Would You Get on the Bus?” exhibit, which features life-size cutouts of James Farmer, a student Freedom Rider and a National Guardsman.
“The bus and people talking about the rides put into perspective how people had to go through so much to be equal among people,” said Kellan Latif, a sophomore from Richmond. “Being here as an African American and seeing the event, I feel honored. We’re getting recognition for things we had to go through.”
Students found inspiration in the memories shared by Green and Mulholland. “It’s amazing what they put on the line to fight for freedom. I applaud them and I’m thankful for what they did,” said Julie Dymon, a senior from Spotsylvania. Aqsa Zafar, a junior from Arlington, was impressed that Mulholland drew a parallel between the civil rights struggles and the ongoing anti-government protests by Egyptian students and other activists: “It’s amazing how she made that a connection because it’s really relevant to us.”
Freedom Riders were beaten and jailed, and their buses were attacked during the rides organized by James Farmer, then head of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. Farmer taught the history of the civil rights movement to Mary Washington students for about a dozen years before his retirement in 1998. That year, President Bill Clinton awarded Farmer the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2010, the university launched its campaign for a U.S. postage stamp honoring Farmer.
The university’s tribute to the rides will include the March 30 limited-release showing of the critically acclaimed PBS documentary “Freedom Riders.” The celebration will culminate with the May 7 commencement address by U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a Freedom Rider and civil rights leader, and a May 8 stop at UMW by the PBS “American Experience” bus carrying college-age students retracing the route of the first Freedom Ride.
The public is invited to the following events that are part of the Freedom Rides tribute, beginning during Black History Month:
• An address, “Lessons of the Civil Rights Generation for Today’s Students,” by Andy Lewis, author of The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation, from 3 to 5 p.m., Wednesday, March 30, in Lee Hall, room 411.
• Limited-release showing of the film “Freedom Riders” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 30, in Dodd Auditorium, George Washington Hall. PBS and UMW have collaborated on this special showing of the widely hailed documentary directed by Stanley Nelson. PBS will broadcast the film in May on “American Experience.”
• Freedom Riders panel discussion and Great Lives lecture at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 31, in Dodd Auditorium, featuring a talk by Raymond Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, followed by a discussion with a panel of Freedom Riders.
• UMW commencement address by Rep. Lewis, part of the ceremony at 9 a.m., Saturday, May 7 on Ball Circle. Lewis, a civil rights colleague of James Farmer and organizer of sit-ins to protest segregation, co-founded and chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a leading organization for student activism.
• Students aboard the PBS “American Experience” bus retracing the route of the first Freedom Ride will stop Sunday, May 8 at UMW in Fredericksburg, part of the original route, for a commemoration at the James Farmer memorial on Campus Walk.
On May 4, 1961, when Farmer and the other 12 original Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C. on the first ride, segregation was decreed by local and state laws throughout the South, despite federal prohibition against the Jim Crow laws restricting the movements of black Americans.
The original Freedom Riders—a racially mixed group of men and women, ranging in age from 18 to 61—traveled on buses through Virginia and into the Deep South, risking their lives as they faced police brutality, vigilantes and even bombs.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent federal marshals to Alabama to restore order after mob violence erupted, and at one point, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. flew to Alabama to support the riders. When news of the brutality against the first rides reached the nation and the world, activists from all over the U.S. joined the effort. In all, more than 400 Freedom Riders—a majority of whom were jailed in Jackson, Miss.—traveled through the South to demand just treatment of all interstate travelers.