I was five years old in 1961 when the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began sending civil rights activists, mostly college students, into communities in the South, to bolster the US Supreme Court’s decision ending segregation for interstate travelers. I was too young to know about the Freedom Riders or racism and had never heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Two years later, when I was 7, my parents left me and my sister and brother with my grandmother and went to Washington, DC, to join King and thousands of others in the March on Washington.
Years later, when my children were in elementary school and my parents would visit, I’d arrange for them to visit my kids’ classes and talk about their experiences on the march. They would describe the peaceful atmosphere of the crowd and the genuine sense of humanity that flowed as people marched.
When I began teaching middle school, I’d tell my students that my parents participated in the march and heard King’s “I have a Dream Speech.” My students, mostly African American, were incredulous that white people were involved with the Civil Rights Movement.
Tomorrow night PBS is airing “Freedom Riders,” a documentary film by Stanley Nelson honoring the 50th anniversary of the efforts to desegregate bus terminals, public restrooms, and lunch counters. Nelson, in an interview in today’s New York Times, says “I feel like I’m trying to tell African- American audiences something they haven’t heard, because I feel like if I tell African- American audiences something new about their history, then it’s definitely going to be new for white folks too.”
PBS through its “American Experience” program organized 40 college students from around the country to retrace the 1961 rides from Washington, DC to New Orleans, LA. Their journals and conversations with some of the remaining Riders, are on its website. The goal is to foster civic engagement.
Check out the website and watch the program. Tape it and share with children.