After a whirlwind trip across the South commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, Murray State University student John Walker says he will never be quite the same.
In April, it was announced that PBS’s “American Experience” program had selected 40 college students from across the country for the 2011 Student Freedom Ride in conjunction with the May 16 broadcast of Stanley Nelson’s “Freedom Riders” documentary and the 50th anniversary of the original May 1961 Freedom Rides. From May 6–16, the journey was designed as a “moving classroom” in which students would retrace the route of the original Freedom Riders, who used public transportation as a means of challenging segregation in the South in 1961.
Walker and the other 39 students were chosen from nearly 1,000 applicants. The trip kicked off in Washington, D.C. with two days of events at the Newseum with some of the original riders and then went through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and into Louisiana, stopping along the way at historically significant locations. It finished in New Orleans, the intended destination of the 1961 Freedom Riders.
“This is one of those experiences that is going to be hard for me to tell people about,” the Nicholasville senior said this week after arriving back in Murray. “Because I can tell people about the chronological events and the way that we did things ... (but) there are parts of this that I can’t really convey to people ... because there was almost as much feeling behind it as it was talking and things happening. A lot of this trip was just emotion and interaction with people.”
With events taking place in 16 different cities over that short period of time, Walker said the trip was a surreal experience, but extremely fun and educational. Over the course of the journey, Walker said he met about 12 of the original Freedom Riders, five of whom rode with the students on the bus during parts of the trip. He said the original riders sat in different parts of the bus and students were encouraged to rotate seating so they could get a chance to talk with each of them.
Videographers from WGBH Boston, the public TV station that produces “American Experience,” were also along for the trip, and Walker said they would have plenty of material if PBS ever makes a documentary about it. There were also three embedded journalists on the trip, which included National Public Radio’s Philip Martin, the Huffington Post’s Trymaine Lee and Leonard Pitts Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning Miami Herald columnist. There were also plenty of reporters at every stop along the way, he said.
Walker said students also got to know Raymond Arsenault, who was also on the trip. Arsenault wrote the book on which Stanley Nelson’s documentary was based, “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.”
Walker said the students got to hear first-hand accounts of many events that happened during the 1961 Freedom Rides. While some of them were familiar, a few of them were not. He said one story that stood out to him was that of Prince Edward County, Va., whose school system was shut down for five years after the state delayed compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, which banned segregation in public schools. He said he heard the personal story from one woman whose father took her across the county to go to school ever day during that period.
“I think that was one of the things we learned from the trip, was every community ... has its own story. Some of them are told and some of them are untold, but they’re all amazing. Some of these things that we learned happened to end segregation in the South are just mind-blowing.
“It wasn’t just college students, it was high-schoolers and (junior high students) taking action to basically change the world. And we got to meet these people. It was very much a living history. I’ve never experienced anything like it on such a grand scale.”