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New York City Students Reenact the Freedom Ride

June 05, 2011
Carol Gersmehl


   Fifty years ago in 1961, rights of African Americans were limited in particular states in the U.S. Geography mattered! Between May 20 and 28, a busload of students and teachers from New York City traveled more than 2,000 miles by bus to retrace the geography of the struggle to gain equal rights for African Americans. High school students from Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens traveled in a Greyhound bus from New York City to Jackson, Missisppi, and then back to NYC. We visited landmarks in the struggle for civil rights in North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Most importantly, our trip was part of a commemoration of "Freedom Riders."   

   Fifty years ago In 1961, African American and white college students (Freedom Riders) road together on buses from Washington, DC, into the Upper South (e.g., Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina) and then into the Deep South (e.g., Alabama, Mississippi). Although the Supreme Court had ruled in 1947 that African Americans could sit anywhere on buses that traveled between states (interstate buses), many states had "Jim Crow" laws that denied equal travel rights to African Americans. In Jackson, Mississippi, we met Freedom Riders who are now in their 70s. In 1961 as college students the young Freedom Riders braved threats, beatings, and imprisonment when they demanded that civil rights of African Americans finally be enforced. Nearly 100 years after the Civil War, Freedom Riders violated particularly harsh "Jim Crow" laws in southern states so that African Americans could gain equal rights on public transportation, in accommodations (lunch counters, restrooms), and in voting throughout the U.S.

Photo on the left: Welcome sign; Photo of right: NYC students are interviewed outside Medgar Evers home.

   During our long bus trip, we visited remarkable landmarks in the struggle for civil rights and museums in Greensboro, NC, Birmingham, AL, and Memphis, TN. The highlight of our trip occurred in Jackson, Mississippi, where our high school students from New York City had opportunity to meet and talk with original Freedom Riders from 1961. We learned about the dramatic efforts of these elders in the 1960s to abolish segregation of bus travel and at lunch counters and to gain voting rights. In addition with these elders, our students discussed current concerns about achieving equality in education for children of all races and ethnicities in northern cities as well as in the southeastern U.S.

MAPS: Here are three maps created by Carol Gersmehl that show the geographic connections to population and the original Freedom Rides of 1961.