by Claire Miller
After a long trip from Washington, D.C., through Virginia and the Carolinas, two buses of black and white college students left Atlanta for Birmingham, Ala., in May 1961 as part of a national movement to test the end of Jim Crow laws in public transportation.
Only one of the buses made it to Birmingham.
When one of the buses stopped at a station in Anniston, Ala., angry protesters slashed the tires, smashed windows and threatened the students inside until the local police escorted the bus out of town. But a few miles down the road, the slashed tires brought the bus to a halt. Upon seeing the flat tires and the growing crowd around the bus, the driver simply walked away, leaving the riders to fend against an angry crowd that attacked them and set the bus on fire.
Photos from this moment in history and stories from both the college students on board and those who witnessed it make up “Freedom Riders,” a PBS documentary on the mass transit movement that is set to air in May.
Georgia State University faculty, staff and students had the chance to see an advanced screening of the film and hear from three Freedom Riders on March 17 at “The Power of Students: Freedom Riders,” an event hosted by the College of Education’s Alonzo A. Crim Center for Urban Educational Excellence.
Bernard Lafayette, William Harbour and Charles Person, three of the college students who survived weeks of taunting, beatings and other abuse during the historic Freedom Rides 50 years ago, spoke about their experiences and how the lessons learned from the Freedom Rides can be applied today.
“We were testing the system,” Harbour said. “And I think we made a difference in the minds of blacks living in the South in 1961.”
The Freedom Riders were beaten and arrested at different points along their journey and remained steadfast examples of Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of peaceful resistance to the injustices of segregation.
Fast forward to the present day, when reports of bullying on playgrounds and on the Internet are more prevalent and political and social turmoil is still a problem in northern Africa and the Middle East. Harbour, Lafayette and Person told attendees that these issues can be tackled head on by using the same tactics and mindset the Freedom Riders used in the 1960s.
“It’s good to talk about what happened 50 years ago,” Lafayette said. “When Martin Luther King talked about nonviolence, he reminded us that love is the most powerful force. You have to learn to love folks – even those who would beat you and spit on you. We need to show people how we want them to behave and be an example.”
Though the U.S. continues to battle issues like bullying, it has made strides in other areas since the Civil Rights era. Harbour quoted President Barack Obama, who credits the Freedom Riders, those who participated in sit-ins and others involved in the fight against segregation for helping to pave the way for his presidency. He also said that more black Americans are registered to vote and hold more local, state and national offices than ever before.
“As we get older and look back, we still have the fire in our bellies,” Person said. “I think Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi would be happy to see the strides we’ve made.”
For more information about the “Freedom Riders” documentary, visit http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders.