ON A TRIP THROUGH HISTORY STUDENTS JOIN THE FREEDOM RIDERS
BIRMINGHAM, Ala., Jan. 28 — More times than he remembers, La’Markus Cook has traveled south on Interstate 65 from Nashville, where he attends American Baptist College, to his home outside Montgomery, Ala. But never, he said, as he did this weekend.
Air brakes hissing and motors rumbling, four buses retraced segments of the 1961 Freedom Rides on Saturday and Sunday, giving students aboard a front-seat view of a pivotal moment in civil rights history. On the rides 46 years ago, activists armed with only their convictions braved white mobs to defy segregation of interstate bus travel.
There have been many previous expeditions to locations where riders were beaten, bloodied and jailed, but this weekend’s was probably the largest and most ambitious attempt to keep the history alive.
“I don’t know that any students have ever had this opportunity before,” said Raymond Arsenault, the author of the 2006 book “Freedom Riders,” considered an authoritative history.
About 100 students from Vanderbilt University, Tennessee State University, Fisk University and American Baptist College accompanied veterans of the civil rights movement, some of whom came close to death in the bloody confrontations over interstate travel in the South.
The buses served as rolling classrooms, leaving Nashville early Saturday for Montgomery and arriving in Birmingham on Saturday evening. The students, along with faculty members, historians and others, returned to Nashville on Sunday.
Along the route, speakers rotated among buses to describe their experiences and answer questions. Several came from the “Nashville movement” of brash activists, many affiliated with the same colleges and universities as the students.
Among them were Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, who was beaten and jailed on the rides; John Seigenthaler, an aide to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy during the crisis; James Lawson and C. T. Vivian, ministers who advised many of the students; and Diane Nash, who in the early 1960s led sit-in movements to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville and became one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
“Maybe, just maybe,” Mr. Lewis said, “this trip will help renew and inspire and encourage people to take a page from the past and apply it to your own life.”
Though the Supreme Court had ruled that Jim Crow segregation in interstate travel was unconstitutional, the Justice Department had little appetite for enforcement. In 1947, an interracial “Journey of Reconciliation” in the upper South had done little to break travel segregation, Mr. Arsenault wrote.
In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality decided to challenge travel segregation again with nonviolent civil disobedience. When one group of interracial passengers reached Anniston, Ala., a Ku Klux Klan-organized mob firebombed the bus and beat the passengers. Passengers on another bus were badly beaten when they reached Birmingham.
Attorney General Kennedy intervened. The riders, some badly hurt, wanted to press on, but the trip was scuttled and the riders flew instead to New Orleans.
Nashville activists pledged to continue. Mr. Seigenthaler pleaded with the students, but Ms. Nash said riders had signed their wills and were prepared to die if necessary.
In Montgomery, a mob met the new wave of riders, severely beating Mr. Lewis and another rider, Jim Zwerg. In the melee, Mr. Seigenthaler was clubbed and left unconscious.
The crisis mounted with riders’ imprisonment in Mississippi. Eventually, more than 400 riders would board segregated buses and trains, taxing courts throughout the South. Then, in September, the Interstate Commerce Commission prohibited all discrimination in interstate busing.
Sherrae M. Hayes, a 20-year-old junior at Tennessee State, said the trip gave the lesson new meaning. “You can definitely learn it from a textbook,” Ms. Hayes said, “but I don’t think it means half as much, or a quarter as much, as being there.”
Outside Montgomery’s old Trailways station on Saturday, riders craned to see the building’s facade. A few minutes later, as rain pattered on the roof of the bus, Mr. Zwerg, 67, described the eerie quiet before the crowd set upon him 46 years ago. “I knew whether I lived or died,” he said, “it was going to be all right.”