Half a century ago, in the early years of the civil rights movement, a group of courageous, mostly young Americans climbed aboard buses for rides that threatened their lives.
They were called Freedom Riders. And next week, three dozen high school students from all over Michigan will follow in their path, in an effort to learn something about a recent era that, to many their age, seems as far removed as the Crusades.
To those who are old enough to remember 1961, however, what happened to the Freedom Riders is vividly real. Their goal was to draw attention to the fact that southern states were openly defying the U.S. Supreme Court, which had twice ruled racial segregation on public buses unconstitutional. But southern states ignored that, and neither state or federal authorities did anything to enforce the law.
Frustrated, the Freedom Riders decided to challenge custom by riding buses in mixed racial groups, and having black riders refuse to obey orders to go to the back of the bus.
The reaction by southern whites was horrifically violent. One bus was firebombed; its riders barely escaped. Freedom riders were beaten by mobs wielding baseball bats and iron pipes, while local police did nothing. Walter Bergman of Detroit, later a law professor at Wayne State University, was beaten so badly he was left paralyzed.
John Lewis, today a congressman from Georgia, had his skull fractured. The Kennedy administration, worried about losing Southern support and about the Soviet Union using the rides for propaganda purposes, was lukewarm at best to the Freedom Riders.
Eventually, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent an assistant, John Seigenthaler, to see what was happening.
He was beaten and left unconscious. Eventually, outraged world and national opinion provoked the federal government to first order protection for the riders, then order the Interstate Commerce Commission to order the bus companies to comply with the law.
The Freedom Riders had won. Their courage and success led more and more young Americans to openly and directly protest and defy segregation. Within a few years, Jim Crow was dead.
Today, however, few students ever heard of the Freedom Riders. That led the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights (MCHR) to do something about it. They decided to put together a “Freedom Tour” for 37 high school students and their chaperones that would follow the route some Freedom Riders took, but take the students also to Alabama, where civil rights workers were attacked in 1965, and Mississippi, to honor the three killed in 1964.
The kids, most of whom are from the Detroit area, will also get non-violence training at the Martin Luther King center in Atlanta, and visit the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.
“Why are we doing this?” said Cary McGehee, the chair of the MCHR board. “It is important because a lot of high school students aren’t being taught their history. Important that they understand.”
Dean Robb, an 89-year-old longtime activist from Suttons Bay, near the tip of the Lower Peninsula, was asked late last year for a $1,500 contribution to support one student.
“I was happy to do it, but then I got so inspired that I said, wait a minute - we need some northern Michigan kids along too,“ he said. He organized an essay contest and picked six winners.
Today, he plans to come down with them in a van to join the bus in Detroit. What’s more, he is going along.
“When the actual Freedom Rides were happening, I was part of a group called Friends of the South which was trying to raise money to support them. This gives me a chance to relive and try to explain this history to them,“ said Robb, who still practices law.
One of those he recruited, Shayna Sumner, 17, is very excited about the experience. “Living in the little community of Lake Leelanau, I am not very exposed to different cultures and races,” she wrote on her application. “I would learn first-hand about the struggle for equal rights that no history class would ever teach me.”
Another, Olivia Kinker, 16, of Northport, said simply that she wanted to go because “I have lived in a very small town all of my life. The Freedom Tour would allow me to step out of my comfort zone.”
And she added, “The fact is that even though immense victories were won in the civil rights movement, we are still waging a war on discrimination today.”
That is precisely why the Freedom Tour is so important, MCHR Chair McGehee, herself a civil rights attorney, said.
“It’s important that they (the students) know the past so they understand where we are now,“ she said. She herself wasn’t born till a year after the Freedom Rides, though she grew up hearing the stories from her father, the late Episcopal Bishop Coleman McGehee, Jr. a legendary fixture in the Michigan civil rights movement.
She is also aware that as the Freedom Rides were gradually ending that summer of 1961, a baby was born in Hawaii who would be the nation’s first African-American president.
But for her, the point of the Freedom Tour is that the job is far from over. “Part of this is so that they can help move us forward in the struggle for equal rights,” she said. She‘ll be especially happy if the tour “helps us create some (future) social justice leaders.”
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News.