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Students retrace 1961 Freedom Rides

Associated Press | 5/11/2011, 11:40 a.m.
Before they participated in the Freedom Rides, C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash (front row on left) and other demonstrators...
Before they participated in the Freedom Rides, C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash (front row on left) and other demonstrators marched to Nashville City Hall on April 19, 1960. Tennessean

“I think we should consider how long it would have taken to desegregate ... if we had left it to public officials,” she said.

The lesson from the Freedom Rides is to take the country’s future into your own hands, Nash said.

“My colleagues had you in mind,” she told the student riders. “We had not met you, but we loved you.”

After events in Washington, the bus heads south on Sunday. Along the way they’ll stop in a number of cities, including those where the 1961 riders were harassed, physically attacked and arrested. The students plan to use social media to share their experiences during the trip, which will end May 16 in New Orleans.

Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland plans to share her scrapbook from 1961 with student riders on the bus trip. The 69-year-old Arlington, Va., resident says she wants to pass on her ideas to the college students because her generation is “fading into a sunset, so to speak.”

Mulholland joined one of the 60 demonstrations after a colleague was arrested on the initial ride. She was arrested June 8, 1961, in Jackson, Miss., and spent about two weeks in the local jail, then the rest of the summer at Parchman.

Prison warden Fred Jones wrote a letter to Mulholland’s mother, telling her that she could send medicine to her daughter. He also made a point to criticize her parenting skills.

“What I cannot understand is why as a mother you permitted a minor white girl to gang up with a bunch of negro bucks and white hoodlums to ramble over this country with the express purpose of violating the laws of certain states and attempting to incite acts of violence,” Jones wrote. The letter appears in photojournalist Eric Etheridge’s book Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Freedom Riders.

Student rider Marshall Houston, a May graduate of the University of Alabama, is building on what he learned when producing a documentary about the university’s Foster Auditorium. Gov. George Wallace made his “stand in the schoolhouse door” at the building on June 11, 1963, in a symbolic attempt to prevent integration as two black students tried to register for class.

Learning about the people — both black and white — who worked behind the scenes to make sure the university’s integration didn’t turn violent drove home the importance of being aware of history, said Houston, a white native of Birmingham.

“Through that process, I really first began to understand what power strategic actions and a coalition of students who believe in equality and justice can have in society,” said the 22-year-old Houston, who compared their efforts to modern-day student activists in Iran and Egypt.

“It’s inspiring when you see young people my age taking a stand,” he said. “If I were in that situation, would I take that stand? That’s not something you can answer until that moment comes.”

Stops in his home state include events at the Anniston bus station, the Montgomery church where a mob of whites trapped the first Freedom Riders, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and hundreds of others.

Glenda Gaither Davis, a Freedom Rider who left college in 1961 to join the protests, says the young people need to know about past struggles so they can solve current and future problems.

“I don’t know what it is in our society — we don’t have a lot of regard for their past,” said the 68-year-old Davis, an Atlanta resident who plans to meet the group when the bus arrives in her city. “They must have an appreciation of history to become a part of the force that’s moving ahead.”

Associated Press Writer Brett Zongker in Washington contributed to this report.