Fifty years ago in May, the Freedom Riders rode into the segregated South to fight for equal rights. University student Marshall Houston will be following in these courageous footsteps as he takes a bus route from D.C. to New Orleans.
Houston, a senior majoring in English and economics, was one of 40 students across the nation selected to participate in the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, in conjunction with the broadcast of the upcoming PBS “American Experience” film “Freedom Riders.” The PBS film will premiere May 16, and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Riders.
The students, accompanied by “Freedom Riders” filmmaker Stanley Nelson and some original riders, will travel the route taken in 1961, leaving from D.C. May 8 and traveling through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and ending with a commemoration in New Orleans on May 16.
The bus will stop at historically significant locations along the way, such as the Anniston Bus Station, where one of the buses was firebombed in 1961, and Montgomery’s First Baptist Church, where original Freedom Riders, along with Martin Luther King, Jr. and 1,500 others, were trapped by a mob until the Kennedy Administration summoned federal marshals, marking a turning point in the civil rights movement.
Birmingham native Houston will be the only student rider from Alabama on the bus, and he said he looks forward to the stops in Alabama when he can share his experiences and open up a discussion.
“My perspective, coming from Birmingham, will show that while Birmingham has a history of violence and racism, it has an extremely rich history of transformational leaders,” Houston said. “History shapes the present, but we’re not bound by history.”
Houston said his former Documenting Justice professor, Andrew Grace, told him about this opportunity. Houston has made films about Foster Auditorium’s place in UA history and the border crisis in El Paso, Texas. Grace called Houston a hardworking, intelligent student who shares with the original riders their spirit and ideals of equal justice and equal access.
“He is a thoughtful young white Southerner interested in discovering more about the history of segregation and how we can move past this difficult part of history,” Grace said. “He is very devoted to furthering our conversation with one another.”
The original 400-plus Freedom Riders, like the students going in May, included blacks and whites, males and females. Deliberately violating Jim Crow laws, the riders dealt with threats, attacks and imprisonment during their nonviolent journey into the Deep South.
Houston said he has been exploring the backgrounds of the riders and is inspired by their tenacity. He said during the bus ride, he will keep his ears open to listen to their stories.
“I don’t want to do any talking; I just want to listen,” Houston said. “I want them to talk through that process of making a decision of that magnitude, to risk everything for something they believe in.”
Houston said he believes in “the human possible,” that everyone has the possibility to contribute to society.
“If you’re trying to wait to be engaged, you’ve missed an amazing opportunity to be an impact right now,” Houston said. “Once we understand how history has shaped the present, we understand our role as an individual and then we can move forward.”
Houston said he hopes to blog during his journey. He made a Twitter account for his upcoming adventure: @Rider_Marshall
For more information on the Freedom Riders or the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, go to pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders/.