50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides

We are nearing the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Rides that tested segregation laws in the South and made the actual implementation of the desegregation case Boynton v. Virginia federal court ruling, which declared segregation on interstate buses to be illegal, a national issue. The widely known Freedom Rides, which were originally organized by James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) but which were picked up by other activists too, took place in May 1961, which makes the 50th anniversary about a month away now. The Civil Rights activists back then had one of their worst and most violent experiences in Montgomery, where I live, after severe run-ins with locals and Klansmen in both Anniston and Birmingham. This episode of Civil Rights history is one of the ways that Alabama got such a bad name for being a brutally and violently intolerance place; the Freedom Rides came after the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott but before the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.

Recently, I got an invitation from Georgette Norman at the Rosa Parks Museum to bring students to a video-conferenced telecast with the Museums of Tolerance that will focus on the Get on the Bus exhibit, which tells the story of the lesser-known Freedom Ride that went from Houston to LA later that year. I am taking 30 or so seniors down there this week, on April 6, to listen to stories and discuss the subject. We have been watching the two-hour PBS American Experience production on the Freedom Riders in thirty-minute pieces each day during class before we go down there soon. Most of them said they knew about the Freedom Riders already, but as they watch the documentary, I watch them in their rapt silence.

Taking students to really dig in to Civil Rights history is one of the things that makes me love to teach. Despite the apathy that I often see on many faces when I teach more banal or more distant material, there is no apathy when engaging this material of the Civil Rights movement in the South, and especially not when faced with the real people who braved dire consequences to make a better America possible. Because of Georgette Norman and others like her, who have been very kind and gracious about including me and my students, I have gotten to take students to meet American heroes like Claudette Colvin, John Siegenthaler, and Diane Nash. I have not wrapped my head complete around who we will meet on April 6, but I am sure they will be no less important to American history and the struggle for equality.

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