Freedom Riders take to the road, again

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May 5, 2011 - 7:00pm

LeRoy Ford has the opportunity to step back in time.

Actually, he's taking the bus.

Beginning May 6, Ford, a sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and 39 other college students from across the United States are becoming Freedom Riders. They will take their seats on a bus traveling from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. They are retracing the same route the original Freedom Riders took in 1961.

In May 1961 the southern half of the United States was segregated. Jim Crow laws - which mandated separate-but-equal public facilities for blacks and whites - had been in effect since 1876. Those laws included segregation of public schools, public places and public transportation. That meant for any black man or woman riding cross-country on a bus, they faced white-only waiting rooms, restaurants, bathrooms and even water fountains.

In 1960 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled separate-but-equal accommodations unconstitutional. Yet the Interstate Commerce Commission failed to enforce the high court ruling. In early 1961 newly elected President John Kennedy was consumed with the Cold War and the looming threat of a nuclear attack. Civil Rights weren't high on his priority list. That's when a group called the Freedom Riders set out to challenge the status quo.

Freedom Riders were non-violent civil rights activists. Their intention was to defy local laws and customs that enforced segregation.

"It started with a small group of black and white Americans who wanted to test and challenge interstate travel facilities throughout the south," said Lauren Prestileo, project manager for the PBS history series American Experience. "Black riders would use white-only waiting rooms and rest rooms, and sort of wait to see what reaction would be, to see if the law of the land was being upheld in these places."

It wasn't.

Instead the Freedom Riders met violence, hatred, beatings and jail. Still their non-violent activism created results.

"This was really one of the very first clear victories of the Civil Rights movement," said Prestileo. "By November of 1961, all of those (white-only signs and the colored-only) signs came down."

Now on the 50th anniversary of the original Freedom Rides, another group is boarding the bus to remember those who were beaten and jailed.

And this is where Ford climbs aboard.

"I feel that in order for me to make a difference here in the present and as well as in the future, I have to understand my past and how it's relevant to our society today," he said.

Ford is one of the 40 college students participating in the retracing of the Freedom Rides. He is an ambassador for the Diversity Enhancement Team at UNL as well as a mentor for a learning community that has adopted leadership, community service and academic excellence as its guiding principles.

Ford said he's participating in the Freedom Rides because it's important to understand the past.

"The hope is these students will gain a deeper understanding of the Freedom Rides and the Civil Rights movement," said Prestileo, "but also have an in-depth and meaningful conversation about how those lessons can be applied to the work that they're doing on their campuses and communities."

The 2011 Student Freedom Ride concludes in New Orleans May 16. That night on NET 1 and NET HD, PBS will air American Experience: Freedom Riders.

Some material for this story is attributed to American Experience: Freedom Riders, a documentary scheduled to air Monday, May 16 on PBS.



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