2/6/2016 3:31:04 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.

"She was a very strong person to do what she did," said Sydney Jones, another Albany High junior, after meeting Freedom Rider Catherine Burks-Brooks. "I'm not sure I could remain non-violent if people were trying to hurt me." In a 90 minute small group session Burks-Brooks shared the story of her encounter with "Bull" Connor, Birmingham's notorious police commissioner, and her promise to return with reinforcements after he drove her out of town in 1961. "Until today Connor had been almost like a cartoon character," observed Lindsey Knowlden, a Siena College junior. "Now he seems more like a person."

Day 2 - May 20

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.

On Thursday in Birmingham, Alabama, Jordan listened as Catherine Burks-Brooks told how she was part of a small band of Freedom Riders who faced a racist mob when they tried to integrate the Montgomery, Alabama, bus terminal 50 years ago. At the conclusion of her talk the students sang the civil rights anthem, “Oh Freedom,” with their new friend.

The following day Jordan cheered from the audience as Ms. Burks-Brooks helped Congressman John Lewis dedicate Montgomery’s Freedom Rider Museum at the former Greyhound bus station. The students in the Civil Rights Study Tour were among the first patrons to view the exhibits documenting the heroism of the young people who risked their lives to challenge the Jim Crow segregation laws.

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.

A memorial service for deceased Freedom Riders in Tougaloo’s historic chapel was the first event on the day’s schedule. Students and chaperones joined in singing Freedom Songs while they awaited the Freedom Riders’ arrival. Murray reconnected with Rev. Ed King, former Tougaloo College chaplain and veteran civil rights activist. Siena students Lindsey Knowlden and Laura Dugan met in person with the Freedom Riders they had interviewed over the phone. Freedom Rider Albert Gordon reunited with the students he had met earlier in the year.

Around 4 p.m. study tour members joined a procession of vehicles across town to the Medgar Evers home—the site of his assassination in 1963. There Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, shared some memories of her husband before unveiling an historic marker in front of the home. While some of the students toured the home, Murray renewed a friendship with Flo Harmon, a former colleague and neighbor of the Evers.

Spending the day in the company of the Freedom Riders was a much anticipated event and the student collected autographs from the heroes of 50 years ago.

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.

Lindsey Knowlden ’12 sought out Freedom Rider Kredelle Petway from Florida after preparing a report on Ms. Petway’s experience attempt to desegregate the Jackson airport with her father and brother in 1961.

Hunter Harrison ’11 struck up a conversation about international affairs with Freedom Rider Bill Hansen who currently teaches at a Nigerian university. Harrison was impressed by Hansen’s refusal to prescribe a course for today’s students. “Each generation must define their own issues and select the methods appropriate for their age,” Hansen said.

Krista Bartholomew ’11 interviewed Freedom Rider Joan Trumauer Mulholland after reading how she became one of the first white students to attend Tougaloo College. When her son tried to pry Mulholland away for an interview, she protested, “She’s a student. Get your priorities straight.”

Singing Freedom Songs with legendary civil rights worker, Hollis Watkins, was a special treat for Albany High junior Kathryn Boyd. She already knew many of these protest songs, but Watkins taught her a new one. Boyd then purchased a CD of Watkins’ songs so she could memorize the lyrics.

That evening Hunter and Charnelle were interviewed by local TV stations. Here is the story - http://www2.wjtv.com/news/2011/may/24/greyhound-bus-station-marker-honors-freedom-riders-ar-1885225/

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.

On Monday Dugan united with activist attorney Carol Silver at a ceremony honoring the Freedom Riders in the historic Woodworth Chapel of Tougaloo College. During the spring semester Dugan researched Silver’s career and then interviewed her by telephone. She learned that Silver returned to the University of Chicago Law School after serving 40 days in jail for her part in the 1961 Freedom Ride to Jackson. In 1977 Silver was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors where she served for twelve years. Her character was portrayed by the actress Wendy King in the 2008 Academy Award winning film “Milk.” Silver also had a small role in the movie. At 73, Silver continues her involvement in philanthropic causes. Most recently, she founded an organization to promote the education of women and girls in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday Dugan encountered Jackson Police Chief, Rebecca Coleman. One of the first African American women to head a major urban police force, Coleman welcomed the Freedom Riders to Jackson and promised to provide a more hospitable welcome than they received 50 years ago. Following the ceremony Dugan introduced herself to Coleman and expressed her admiration of the police chief’s pioneering work in law enforcement.

Wednesday Dugan and the other students on the tour had a private audience with Judge James Graves, recently confirmed as the second African American justice on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Graves explained the workings of the court and described his previous service on the Mississippi Supreme Court. He identified the constitutional rights of immigrants as the most pressing civil rights issue currently facing the federal court. Graves offered his election to the state court as an example of improved race relations in Mississippi. “Without the votes of white voters, I never would have been elected,” he remarked.

Late Wednesday the students arrived at the Albany International Airport, weary from seven days of non-stop travel, but energized by their encounters with the Freedom Riders.

The trip was made possible thanks to the following donors-

Major Donors:

Touhey Family Foundation
RJKB Family Foundation

Other Donors:

Ray Newkirk and Christy D'Ambrosi
Alan Okun & Karen Tassey
Al DeSalvo
Susan Thompson
Fred Pfieffer and Melanie Pores
Barney and Lynn Horowtiz
Jenny McErlean
Berkshire Bank Foundation
Pete and Marilyn Newkirk
Karen and Bill Phillips
Siena College Damietta Center
Siena College President’s Office
Doug and Judy Bowden
Carl and Theresa Swidorski
Cris and Ed Blanchard
Dewey Hill
Jack and Chip Mayer
Bonner Foundation
Phillis Pulver
Pat Barbanell
Doug Lonnstrom
Siena College Sociology Department
Sharon Alley
Patricia Hunt Perry
Rebecca Murray
Edith Leet
Jessica and Sassan Pazirandeh
Congressman Paul Tonko
Gary Thompson
Don and Jane Levy
Siena College Bookstore

Contact: Communications Office
Contact E-mail: communications@siena.edu

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