Freedom Riders

by Katharine Reece MFA '12

Freedom Riders

In the spring of 1961, a bold group of activists, both black and white, sat next to each other on interstate buses and rode from Washington, DC, into the segregated southern United States. Would recent Supreme Court decisions that “separate but equal” facilities were unconstitutional protect them?

Unfortunately, no. The Freedom Rides provoked brutal reactions. Some participants were beaten with baseball bats, and a bus outside Alabama was firebombed. But the rides drew national attention to segregation, which persisted because of local laws, customs, and deeply entrenched racism.

In November of 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally issued new rules enforcing existing laws to end discrimination in interstate travel. Fifty years later, Sarah Lawrence commemorated the anniversary of the Freedom Rides with a month-long series of events. The roster included an art and poetry exhibit featuring local Yonkers artists, a talk by faculty emeritus Francis Randall about his experience on one of the rides, and a screening of Freedom Riders, an Emmy Award- winning PBS documentary. The events concluded with a spoken-word performance and concert of traditional protest and gospel songs, organized by Nehemiah Luckett ’04 (above) and Alwin Jones (literature).

The message of the Freedom Rides still resonates today. In the discussion following the film screening, history faculty member Komozi Woodard said, “People get beaten all the time, but when a movement is about to happen, those people rebound; when others see a beating happen, instead of running away, they run to help. With the Freedom Rides, we see people running to help. And we live in a time now, too, where people are running to help.”