LELAND – Six Leelanau County and 31 Detroit black, white and Hispanic high school students were scheduled this morning to board a bus for a two-week trip that retraces the steps of civil rights “Freedom Riders” into the Deep South a half century ago.
Organized by the Michigan Coalition of Human Rights, the “2013 Freedom Tour” honors the work of original civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States in 1961 to challenge non-enforcement of a 1960 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregated public buses were unconstitutional.
The tour also commemorates the 50th anniversary week of an early “dream” speech Martin Luther King made in Detroit in June 1963, two months before his historic “I Have a Dream Speech” during the March on Washington in August that year.
Leelanau students on the tour represent all six of the county’s schools. They are: Alexander Bennett, 16, Glen Lake; Brennan Deckrow, 16, Leland; Olivia Kinker, 16, Northport; Shayna Sumner, 17, Lake Leelanau St. Mary’s High School; Theo Noffsinger, 16, Suttons Bay; and Jackie Zarzycki, 16, Glen Lake.
All will be seniors this fall and all were selected through an essay-writing and interview process organized by Dean Robb, 89, a Suttons Bay attorney who raised a total seven $1,500 scholarships for students going on the tour. The essay asked why the students wanted to participate in the tour and what they could bring back to this area from the trip.
“It’s not just for us,” Deckrow said of the trip. He and other students will do public presentations about the journey when they return, he said.
Jackie Zarzycki, 16, of Glen Lake said she wants to learn as much as she can on the trip.
“I think it’s really important to realize that we think of racial inequality as something that happened in history, but it’s still happening today,” she said.
Robb was in his 30s in 1961 when he began helping a group called Friends of the South organize 25 civil rights attorneys, mostly from Detroit, to help get Freedom Riders and other civil rights activists out of jail, challenge illegal arrests, and work with southern lawyers and civil rights organizations. In 1963, he organized an inter-racial conference of 10-12 southern lawyers in Atlanta where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke shortly after he was released from a Birmingham Jail.
Robb’s biggest civil rights case was a civil lawsuit against the FBI filed by the family of murdered Detroit freedom rider Viola Liuzzo. The Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist from Michigan was murdered by Ku Klux Klan members on the last night of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March in Alabama. She was the first and only white woman killed during the civil rights movement, said Robb, who will be one of the bus chaperones.
Another original civil rights activist who will participate in the tour is Diane Nash, 75, a Fisk University student in 1961 who organized students in Nashville, Tenn., to continue the freedom rides after segregationists attacked buses in Alabama and viciously assaulted riders. She also led the first successful civil rights campaign to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville and the Selma Voting Rights Movement campaign and was among the co-founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the student wing of the American civil rights movement.
The students’ itinerary includes the following visits:
• Mississippi Civil Rights Memorial Service in Meridian, Miss. An annual event honoring slain civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and other Mississippi civil rights movement participants. Nash organized and will host this.
• Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Ga. Freedom Tour participants will go through an intensive, five-day non-violence training program.
• National Voting Rights Museum & Institute in Selma, Ala. It is a permanent memorial to the struggle to obtain voting rights for disenfranchised Americans.
• Southern Poverty Law Center and Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala, which is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society.
• Koinonia Farm, a Christian community founded in Americus, Ga., in 1942. It has been involved in civil rights, prison ministry, affordable housing, youth and elders programs, racial reconciliation, sustainable agriculture, peace activism and land stewardship.
For more information on the Freedom Tour, see Jack Lessenberry's column on Op-Ed page ???