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Equity & Diversity

Freedom Riders, Students Gather To Remember Fight for Civil Rights

By Madeline Will — July 02, 2014 3 min read
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More than fifty years ago, they boarded buses and headed deep into the segregated South to make a statement for equality. They were threatened, and some were pulled from buses and beaten. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan even firebombed some buses.

And on Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, some of the surviving Freedom Riders who had traveled to the South to challenge segregation climbed back onto buses. But this time, they were joined by a new generation eager to learn from the civil rights activists and show their appreciation.

Three buses took a group of six Freedom Riders and 49 students on a trip from the U.S. Department of Education building in downtown Washington to Richmond, Va., the one-time capital of the Confederacy. There, they would be welcomed as guests of honor by leaders like Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner.

At the Education Department headquarters—named for President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act into law—the familiar refrains of “freedom songs,” or anthems sang by civil rights activists, filled the air. And the Freedom Riders remembered.

A musical group called No Chains sang some of those songs, clapping and swaying to the music, and even inspiring Hank Thomas, an original Freedom Rider, to break into dance before boarding the bus (photo on right).

A student soloist, Blossom Ojukwu, performed “We Shall Overcome.” When she sang the chorus of that civil rights anthem—Oh deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day— the Freedom Riders joined along.

Fifty years since the signing of the Civil Rights Act, much has changed. But at the Education Department headquarters, speakers encouraged students to make their own difference.

“We at the Department of Education believe that education is a civil right of our time, and it is a right that every child, every young person has the right to—a first-class, world-class education that equips him or her for a great future,” said Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the department’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “District by district, ZIP code by ZIP code, the regulations may change, may be different, may be applied inequitably. But if nobody’s saying anything—all the push can’t come from Washington. We need to be pushed by you.”

(An Education Week commentary piece discusses some of the unfinished business in education half a century after the Civil Rights Act.)

Zacharia Ugohno, a rising senior at Largo High School in Upper Marlboro, Md., delivered a message from President Barack Obama that praised the Freedom Riders’ legacy and acknowledged the work still to come.

“Today, let us resolve to restore the promise of opportunity, defend our fellow Americans’ sacred right to vote, seek equality in our schools and workplaces, and fight injustice wherever it exists,” the president’s statement read. “Let us remember that victory never comes easily, but with iron wills and common purpose.”

Wednesday’s ceremony was particularly relevant for students and young people because many of the Freedom Riders were young themselves when they boarded those buses half a century ago.

“At that time, I would go anywhere at any time to fight the Klan or any injustice anywhere,” said Charles Person, one of the original Freedom Riders who is now in his 70s. “At 18, you are very idealistic, and you just want to see change. I had nothing to lose because my future was basically already set for me, and I wanted to make a difference.”

Photo: Hank Thomas, one of the original Freedom Riders, dances before boarding a bus to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Photo by Madeline Will for Education Week.

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