Tracing history’s footsteps through Freedom Riders


In memory of the Civil Rights movement, YO:Durham and a couple of students recently traced the footsteps of civil rights leaders who struggled during the 1961 Freedom Rides.

Brittany Dunn and Vincent Harding attended the Freedom Ride trip together. Harding, a civil rights legend, recently returned from the Middle East where he was promoting peace-building between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank.   Photo Courtesy of YO:Durham

Brittany Dunn and Vincent Harding attended the Freedom Ride trip together. Harding, a civil rights legend, recently returned from the Middle East where he was promoting peace-building between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank.
Photo Courtesy of YO:Durham

Just before this past holiday season, YO: Durham Internship and Mentoring coordinator Eric Olson-Getty and YO: Durham Alumna Brittany Dunn participated in the 21st Century Freedom Ride.

This modern ride was meant as a pilgrimage to remember the original sacrifices of the Freedom Rides and were conducted with Vincent Harding, a scholar and civil rights activists who may be best known for writing speeches for Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Freedom Riders were a group of people that challenged the racism and segregation of the Jim Crow South by riding interstate busses. Some of them were attacked by dogs and by people who would spit on them. There were many people who did not like the Riders trying to change how things were.

Olson-Getty said he went on the trip for specific reasons, but mainly for the opportunity to connect with others “reflecting on the importance of the movement and our current moment in history.”

“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to sit, talk and learn with Vincent Harding, a wise elder who has been in the struggle since the 1950’s,” said Olson-Getty.

Olson-Getty said he admires Harding and what he stands for.

“He [Harding] carries within himself the history of the movement for freedom that stretches back to the beginnings of this social and political experiment we call ‘America,’” he said.

Things have changed in America since May 1961 when the Freedom riders first stepped on the bus, but young adults like Dunn wonder what it was like back then.

“When I stepped onto the bus that would be taking me from my home in Durham to the Deep South, I instantly thought, what if it was 1961 and this was the original Freedom Ride?” said Dunn who is in her early 20s.

Are you wondering what the original Freedom Rides were like?

In the beginning, the Rides were sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality or CORE, a national civil rights organization that believes in equal rights for all people. According to CORE’s website, the freedom riders were formed to fight against segregation laws in the nation’s bus terminals and began with seven blacks and six whites leaving Washington, D.C. for the Deep South.

According to local civil rights legend John Hope Franklin and co-author Evelyn Higginbotham’s classic textbook, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, many southern highways still refused to recognize the Supreme Court ruling, Boynton v. Virginia (1960), confirming racial equality in public transportation. During their attempt, the freedom riders were often attacked by those resisting change and even neglected by the police when assaulted.

In places like Birmingham, Alabama, people threw firebombs at the buses and beat one person so badly they received permanent brain damage. In Montgomery, Alabama a justice department monitor was also beaten which forced Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to send in 600 federal officers to the city. By September of 1961, it was ruled that passengers on interstate buses could sit regardless of race, and bus terminals could not be segregated.

In a way, the Freedom Riders increased the Civil Rights momentum of the time through sit-ins and boycotts, and eventually peaked with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law, still important today, gave the attorney general the power to protect citizens against discrimination and segregation.

From the trip, both Dunn and Olson-Getty said they learned some valuable things.

“One thing I learned is that I have the power to make a difference if I just stand up for what I believe in and put the time and effort to make it possible,” Dunn said.

Dunn said her love of black history forced her to participate in the 21st Century Freedom Ride and the experience was an important one for her.

“Visiting and learning about Birmingham through the Civil Rights Institute and the park where demonstrators were attacked by police made me feel a connection with the area and the people I was around,” Dunn said.

Things may have changed since the days of the Freedom Rides, MLK’s marches and Harding’s speeches. But their importance still follows us today Olson Getty says.

He said he sees echoes in the Freedom Rides even today and one thing someone said on the trip that stuck in his head came from a young undocumented immigrant activist.

“She said her work wasn’t about begging the United States to give her rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship,” said Olson-Getty. “She said this country needs what she has to offer.”

“It struck me that this young woman did not think of herself in terms of what she lacked,” he said. “But rather in terms of the gifts and abundance that she has to offer us.”

Story by Raeshawn Wall
YO:Durham Intern
the Durham VOICE