SALT LAKE CITY — They came to be known as Freedom Riders.
In a little-known chapter of the country’s civil rights movement, nonviolent activists boarded buses bound for New Orleans with a single objective: challenge the era’s segregation of bus travel. Over a six-month period in 1961, the volunteers endured mob violence, with local police often refusing to intervene, and imprisonment rather than forsake their ideals.
To commemorate the 50-year anniversary of this movement and promote a PBS documentary on the topic, 40 college students — including a University of Utah student — will be given the unique opportunity to travel along the civil rights bus route and document their experience.
“It will be interesting to see how we as this group of students from different backgrounds and many different cities process this together and what we will take away from it,” said Esther Kim, who is studying sociology and gender studies and a member of the university’s 2012 class. “History books give one view but it is a totally different perspective to meet personally with these activists and travel along the same route that they did.
“I have a great deal of respect for what they were able to accomplish.”
The PBS organizers have dubbed the contemporary group Student Freedom Riders, and it was important that those selected from the 1,000 applicants represented a diverse cross-section of Americans to reflect the original Freedom Riders of both black and white protestors. They are from 33 states and include students who grew up in China, Tajikistan and Haiti.
“History is fascinating, but more importantly, we know it informs almost every social and political decision made today,” said Mark Samels, executive producer of the award-winning PBS American Experience series. The nonprofit broadcaster commissioned filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s documentary “Freedom Riders” that will be telecast by the 348 member stations, including Utah’s KUED, on May 16. One critic called it “a real-life David and Goliath story that will exhilarate all audiences.”
The bus tour is intended to spur “cross-generational dialogue” about the role of civic engagement, he explained. Another objective is to consider "what issues inspire students to ‘get on the bus’ today.”
“It’s those lessons from 1961 and how they are informing civic engagement today that we look forward to exploring on this ride,” Samels added.
“Because I am an Asian woman, I have a connection to the civil rights movement and the rights of people of color,” Kim said. “I want to reconcile where I belong within this movement.”
Riding with the students will be original Freedom Riders and Nelson, who created the PBS film that competed at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. The expenses-paid “moving classroom” excursion will begin with a public event May 6 in Washington, D.C., and travel through seven Southern states.
Concluding May 15 in New Orleans, the intended destination of the 1961 Freedom Riders, the travel will include the Montgomery, Ala., church that a mob threatened to burn down with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and others inside. The event coincides with an anniversary reunion of the original riders.
“The Freedom Ride created an unbelievable sense: Yes, we will make it. Yes, we will survive. And that nothing, but nothing, was going to stop this movement,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an original Freedom Riders, has said.
“Ninety-nine percent of us were from the South,” said Catherine Burks-Brooks, another rider, at one preview of the documentary. “What we had participated in life we didn’t like. What we had suffered we didn’t like.”
“I didn’t feel like I was a hero or anything like that,” recalled Freedom Rider Frank Holloway in an interview. “I did it and when I stopped doing it, I didn’t feel like anybody needed to reward me or congratulate me or pat me on my back. I did what I felt like I had to do.”
Students were chosen partly based on their social media and community involvement, said WGBH Boston’s Lauren Prestileo, the trip coordinator and an American Experience project manager. Also judged were the required personal essays.
“I actually only learned about the event the week before the deadline,” Kim said. And, in typical university student behavior, “I submitted the materials the evening before they were due.”
A past president of the university’s Asian American Student Association and Young Asian Professionals, Kim said, “There have been covert actions in my life that remind me that I am different. The racial slurs to my face by people who feel justified in what they are doing are amazing.
“People have asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ I was born in Los Angeles and I’ve lived in Utah for many years. ‘No, where are you really from? You’re not really from here.’
“I know I shouldn’t really have anything to complain about, compared to other injustices; but that in a way that is in itself oppressive.”
According to PBS organizers, the full cost will be about $1 million — with half for the bus ride — and is the largest event in American Experience’s history. The "Freedom Riders" campaign includes an exhibit traveling to 20 cities (including a Salt Lake City Public Library stop June 13-July 11); nationwide public screenings; high school curriculum materials and training for 650 teachers; and a website with 12 other short films by documentarian Nelson.
Following the national telecast of “Freedom Riders,” KUED will air the locally produced “Utah’s Freedom Riders,” a profile of the state’s early civil rights workers, and “Navigating Freedom: A Utah Youth Perspective,” eight personal films of high school students who talk about what freedom means to them.
“I’m going in to this somewhat blindly but I am very excited to participate and speak one on one with the original Freedom Riders and visit these important places,” Kim explained.
“And I’m hoping it won’t be 10 hours a day sitting on a bus or I may not survive.”
Blair Howell is a freelance editor and writer.