Fifty years ago on May 4, 1961, thirteen black and white, mostly young activists boarded buses in Washington, D.C., bound for New Orleans. Their mission was to challenge the segregated seating on interstate transportation that existed throughout the Deep South. They were well schooled in the philosophy and techniques of nonviolent protest and keenly aware that they risked injury, even loss of life, by their actions. Before the end of the Freedom Rides that year, 436 individuals from all across the United States had joined the movement. The resulting scale of violence against the activists that occurred, particularly in Alabama, shocked the nation and ultimately helped break the back of racial segregation not only in public transportation but also in other areas of public accommodations.
During the month of January, a "Freedom Riders, Fighters & Writers Exhibit" created by Roosevelt High School students in partnership with University of Portland students and in collaboration with the traveling PBS "Freedom Riders" exhibit, will be installed for public viewing at many Portland locations, including:
- North Portland Library Jan. 9-11;
- Portland Community College-Cascade Campus Jan. 12-13;
- Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, 8725 N. Chautauqua Boulevard Jan. 15;
- Highland Christian Center, 7600 NE Glisan Street for the Martin Luther King Day Celebration Jan. 16;
- University of Portland Jan. 17-20; and
- Roosevelt High School Jan. 21-24.
A formal gathering and reception honoring the participants will be held at Roosevelt High School at 7 p.m., Jan. 23.
The PBS exhibit is based on the documentary, "Freedom Riders," by filmmaker Stanley Nelson that premiered on PBS's "American Experience" May 2011.
Raymond Arsenault's book, "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice," on which the film is based, is considered the definitive history of the Freedom Rides.
Roosevelt Principal Charlene Williams says, "Roosevelt High School is building a college-going culture, fueled by a dose of moral indignation. Students of color and those in poverty are statistically less likely to go to college. Adults and students at Roosevelt are not OK with that. They are rallying around the recognition that education is a civil right. And starting in January, they'll show what they mean in words, service and deeds."
The "Freedom Riders, Fighters & Writers Exhibit" was designed to accomplish the following goals: to inform and inspire local citizens about the role the Freedom Rides played in the Civil Rights Movement; to honor Portland's local Freedom Riders and Fighters; to engage local audiences in exploring ways to take a stand for social justice; to support local students' travels to historic black colleges and civil rights sites; and to provide an opportunity for Roosevelt students to advance and highlight their writing and presentation skills.
The students, under the direction of Roosevelt's Writing and Publishing Center facilitator, Kate McPherson, spent the summer and fall of 2011 conducting oral history interviews with two Portland-area Freedom Riders, as well as other local men and women engaged in social justice work. They also interviewed staff in Mayor Sam Adams' office, The Oregonian and Powells Books to learn about public service, journalism and career choices. Material gathered through these interviews provided inspiration for the creation of poems, narratives and artwork for the exhibit as well as to improve their writing and research skills.
First person contacts with individuals involved in social justice work provided powerful experiences for understanding historical events and community problems. Roosevelt student Dorian Erich says, "To be a Freedom Fighter does not mean to be something extremely big or perfect…Becoming a Freedom Fighter will change lives for [a] better future."
Student Hana Kent adds, "You can be a freedom fighter by just speaking up and raising awareness and issues in our community…This class has taught me so much. I not only know how to be a freedom fighter, but it's made me a better writer too."
For the University of Portland students, the project provided a valuable opportunity for practical experience outside the classroom that will help them become better teachers in the future. One UP student remarked that the first person contacts opened her eyes to the reality of some of the students' difficult lives. Seeing the students come to realize how much they are capable of doing also provided many rewards.
In March 2012 Roosevelt students plan to tour historic black colleges and Civil Rights Movement sites throughout the South. The complete schedule of exhibit locations, dates and times plus a downloadable booklet made by the students may be found here. Donations to help defray expenses for the students' tour can also be gratefully accepted at the website.