June 7, 2023

UMW to Host Freedom Riders during March 30-April 1 Events

The University of Mary Washington will host a panel of Freedom Riders for a Great Lives Lecture Series discussion on Thursday, March 31 as part of three days of events honoring the 1961 Freedom Rides that challenged segregated interstate bus travel in the Deep South.

Freedom Riders Charles Person and Catherine Burks-Brooks will be joined by fellow riders Reginald Green and Joan Trumpauer Mulholland at 7:30 p.m. on March 31 in George Washington Hall, Dodd Auditorium, for a conversation led by Raymond Arsenault, author of “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.”

Charles Person, then an 18-year-old Morehouse College freshman and the youngest member of the original Freedom Ride, was one of the most badly beaten riders during the May 14, 1961 riot at the Birmingham, Ala., Trailways bus station. Catherine Burks-Brooks, then a 21-year-old Tennessee State University student, found herself in the May 20, 1961 riot at the Montgomery, Ala., Greyhound bus station and the next day at the siege of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church.

Other highlights of the March 30-April 1 events include the March 30 talk “Lessons of the Civil Rights Generation for Today’s Students” by Andy Lewis, the March 30 screening of the critically acclaimed PBS film “Freedom Riders” and the April 1 UMW-Hampton University debate of the topic “Resolved: Today’s Students Wouldn’t Get on the Bus.” The student-created “Down Freedom’s Main Line” museum exhibit will be on display in the Dodd Auditorium foyer through commencement.

The university began its three-month commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides on February 6 with the Rev. Reginald Green and Joan Mulholland on hand for the unveiling of a 1960s-era bus and exhibit of historical photos of the rides led by James L. Farmer Jr., the late civil rights leader and UMW professor.

The celebration will culminate with commencement addresses by former Freedom Riders. U.S. Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) will speak at the May 6 graduate ceremony, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) will deliver the address at the May 7 undergraduate ceremony. On May 8, the PBS “American Experience” bus carrying college students and Freedom Riders will make its first stop at the Fredericksburg campus on its journey from Washington, D.C. to Jackson, Miss. Forty students will be selected through a national competition to retrace the route of the original Freedom Ride.

Freedom Riders were beaten and jailed, and their buses were attacked during the rides organized by Farmer, then head of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. Farmer taught civil rights history at Mary Washington for about a dozen years before his retirement in 1998. That year, President Bill Clinton awarded Farmer the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2010, the university launched its campaign for a U.S. postage stamp honoring Farmer.

The public is invited to the following events:

  • A talk by Andy Lewis, author of “The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation,” at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, March 30, in Lee Hall, Room 411.
  • A limited-release showing of the documentary “Freedom Riders” at 7 p.m. on March 30 in Dodd Auditorium. PBS and UMW have collaborated on this special screening of the widely hailed film directed by Stanley Nelson and based on Raymond Arsenault’s book “Freedom Riders.” PBS will broadcast the film in May on “American Experience.”
  • A Freedom Riders panel discussion and Great Lives lecture at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 31, in Dodd Auditorium, featuring Arsenault leading a conversation among the Freedom Riders—Burks-Brooks, Green, Mulholland and Person.
  • A debate between UMW and Hampton University teams on the topic “Resolved: Today’s students wouldn’t get on the bus” from 3 to 4:15 p.m. on Friday, April 1 in Lee Hall, Room 411.

The public is encouraged to check periodically for event updates at http://freedomrides.umw.edu.

On May 4, 1961, when the 13 original Freedom Riders led by Farmer left Washington, D.C. on the first ride, segregation was decreed by local and state laws throughout the South, despite federal prohibition against the Jim Crow restrictions on the movements of black Americans.

The original Freedom Riders—a racially mixed group of men and women, ranging in age from 18 to 61—traveled on buses through Virginia and into the Deep South, risking their lives as they faced police brutality, vigilantes and even bombs.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent federal marshals to Alabama to restore order after mob violence erupted, and at one point, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. flew to Alabama to support the riders. When news of the brutality against the first rides reached the nation and the world, activists from all over the U.S. joined the effort. In all, more than 400 Freedom Riders—a majority of whom were jailed in Jackson, Miss.—traveled through the South to demand just treatment of all interstate travelers.

About Brynn Boyer

Brynn Boyer is assistant director of media and public relations and a 2010 graduate of UMW.