The Free-Lance Star, Peter Cihelka, File, Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. — Charles Reed Jr. is skipping his college graduation ceremony to do something much more significant to him: retracing the original 1961 Freedom Ride and paying tribute to those who helped win the civil rights that his generation enjoys.
Reed says missing Friday's graduation doesn't compare to the sacrifices the original Freedom Riders made when they challenged the South's segregation laws: quitting jobs, dropping out of college and, ultimately, risking their lives.
"What the Freedom Rides did 50 years ago paved the way for what I have today as an African-American," said Reed, a 21-year-old business administration major at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
Reed is one of 40 college students chosen from nearly 1,000 applicants who will join a handful of the original Freedom Riders on an eight-day journey from Washington, D.C., through the South.
The students pulled up in their bus Friday night to greet more than a dozen original Freedom Riders at the Newseum in Washington for the premiere of a new PBS documentary on the rides based on a book by Raymond Arsenault. They sang "Oh, Freedom" and other tunes together before viewing the film, which premieres May 16 on public broadcast stations.
The documentary recounts the rides state by state and how they pushed President John F. Kennedy to advocate for civil rights. As a young rider, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia said he "felt like a soldier in a nonviolent army," though the rides were more confrontational than Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders would have preferred.
Congress of Racial Equality head James Farmer, six other black people and six white people participated in the first Freedom Ride, which left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. The trip was to test whether southern states were implementing Boynton v. Virginia, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred segregation in public-transportation facilities.
The trip carried riders through Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. The group faced violent attacks in the Deep South from white mobs who opposed integration. One of the buses was firebombed in Anniston, Ala., and the riders were beaten. A Ku Klux Klan mob attack in Birmingham, Ala., drew national headlines and international embarrassment for the Kennedy administration. The first rides ended with a federally escorted flight to New Orleans.
As news of the violence spread, hundreds joined the Freedom Rides. Hundreds were jailed that summer in Jackson, Miss., and transferred to the infamous Parchman state penitentiary after the local jail ran out of space. The demonstrations became a defining point in U.S. civil rights history.
Lewis, who was knocked unconscious during a May, 1961, mob attack at a bus terminal in Montgomery, Ala., said it's important for students to learn that the Freedom Riders were willing to die to confront the "whites only" and "colored only" signs at transit stations to end segregation.
"We never gave in," Lewis said. "We kept the faith, and it's important for the stories to be told over and over again so future generations and especially these young people that are traveling will learn that in a matter of a short time, we brought down those signs."
Diane Nash, who organized a wave of riders from Nashville, Tenn., said she got involved because it was humiliating to be segregated and many in Nashville were fed up.
"I think we should consider how long it would have taken to desegregate ... if we had left it to public officials," she said.
The lesson from the Freedom Rides is to take the country's future into your own hands, Nash said.
"My colleagues had you in mind," she told the student riders. "We had not met you, but we loved you."
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