May 9, 2011
by Phillip Martin
In 1961, thirteen individuals spent weeks training in non-violent resistance and boarded two separate buses in Washington, D.C. They headed southward to states that included Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. They were described as Freedom Riders, and their mission was to demonstrate against racial segregation in force in the Deep South.
They encountered brutal violence, including a firebombing of their bus in Alabama. This month, on the 50th anniversary of the ride, WGBH follows a racially integrated group of 40 students from around the country as they retrace the path of the original Freedom Riders. WGBH’s Phillip Martin is traveling with the Student Freedom Riders 2011 and begins with this profile of one of them.
Sitting at an outdoor café in Cambridge, 21-year-old Peter Davis, a junior at Harvard, explains why he took time from his end of semester studies to board a bus heading south.
“I applied for the 2011 Student Freedom Ride because I know that every generation has to re-grow the spirit of democratic activism,” Davis said. “It doesn’t naturally flow from generation to generation and I can think of no better way to be inspired to continue the struggle to make America a more perfect union than to learn from those that struggled for it before like the Freedom Riders.”
In 1961, Peter Davis was only a figment of the imagination. So he did not hear or experience the news of a Greyhound bus carrying young black and white civil-rights workers into the segregated Deep South. Their purpose was to try to enforce a federal law banning segregation in interstate transportation. It would not be easy.
The new WGBH American Experience film Freedom Riders tells a story of individual courage that’s many believe has been overshadowed by the giants of the civil rights movement.
Back in Cambridge, Peter Davis is not sure if he would have gotten on that bus 50 years earlier. But this Government, Community and Democracy major says he connects to the spirit that moved some to do more than just talk about color blindness.
Davis recently sat on an American Experience panel, side by side with several of the original Freedom Riders.
“It’s been incredible. You read about people that were part of the civil rights movement, but when you finally meet them, to look at these people as people are introducing them and saying they got on a bus where they assumed there was going to be death and they knew they were going to get beat up and they knew they were going to be greeted by Klan mobs. That’s incredible,” Davis said.
Davis is an activist himself. He founded a project called Common Place, which builds Web platforms that folks in towns, and cities around the country use to talk to one another -- sort of like a community bulletin board.
This Virginia native says that as he travels with other students through the South this week, he will reflect on his own background in the context of modern American race relations:
“I don’t come from any minority group. I’m a brown-haired white male in my 20’s that goes to Harvard, and so I don’t have a lot of oppression that I experienced in my life. And so that’s a challenge for people like me to find, what is our reason? Can we fight for a cause, even though we’re not part of the community that’s being oppressed?” Davis said.
He says one original rider, Genevieve Houghton, helped him answer those questions. Houghton, who is now in her 80’s, is a white woman who lived in the South when she decided to join the ride.
“She’s from the South, but she still found a reason to fight for something greater than herself,” Davis said.
In 1961, Genevieve Haughton had recently graduated from college and was working in a comfortable and lucrative job on Wall Street, both of which were unusual for a woman of that era.
“I’m one of the original Freedom Riders. The people who went down South in order to see whether inner state transportation was open to everybody, and they found out that it wasn’t,” Houghton said.
A strong-willed individual, Houghton was something of a rarity in her workplace, enduring slights that fueled her indignation over the mistreatment of others.
“And I knew what that felt like. And then when I began to read books by current writers like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, I got the same feeling when I read the books. Exactly the same feeling,” Houghton said. “It’s often mentioned that black people had to step off the sidewalk when white people came down the sidewalk. This was thought to be normal. I didn’t think it was normal.”
This week the buses are rolling again through the South, carrying original Freedom Riders and new student riders like Peter Davis. They’re heading toward the same destination and reliving a moment that changed American history.