Fifty years ago, civil activists known as the "Freedom Riders" rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to challenge local laws that enforced segregation. This week, MCLA students Ashton Darrett '11 and Michael Obasohan '11 are joining college students from across America as they retrace the Freedom Riders' journey.
"Freedom Riders Revisited" is a production of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) television show "American Experience." Through May 16, students will participate in a conversation about civic engagement, what it means today, what has changed since 1961 and what inspires young people to "get on the bus."
For their roles, Darrett and Obasohan will facilitate a conversation in Charlotte, N.C., as students discuss their Freedom Riders experience.
"They are experiencing this journey first-hand, and a lot of emotions are probably to follow," Obasohan said. "My role is to create an environment where these students can keep an open mind to help them best reflect on themselves."
According to Darrett (pictured right), participating in the event is a great honor because it allows him to be a part of history that was instrumental in the changing of America.
"It gives me a chance to shed some light on issues that are very taboo yet deeply rooted in American society, such as racism, classism and bigotry. These issues can be dispelled through understanding and knowledge and I'm happy to be a means to help achieve that goal," Darrett said.
According to MCLA Dean of Students Charlotte Degen, Darrett and Obashan were invited to participate because of their extraordinary work with the College's chapter of Campus Conversations on Race (CCOR).
After witnessing the way both men distinguished themselves as skilled dialog facilitators and leaders, the director of The Center for National Race Relations and Amity at Wheelock College, Dr. William Smith, immediately invited the two students to travel to North Carolina to be part of the student CCOR team to help the Freedom Riders debrief their experiences, Degen explained.
"It is certainly a once in a lifetime honor and one that both of these students deserve in light of their work, many contributions here, the prospect of their contributions to the Freedom Rider group and improved understanding of race relations," Degen said.
The Riders' actions tested the 1960 U.S. Supreme Court decision "Boynton vs. Virginia," which outlawed racial segregation in the restaurants and terminals that served buses that crossed state lines.
The reactions they provoked supported the credibility of the American Rights Movement and brought national attention to segregation in the South. Riders were arrested for trespassing, unlawful assembly and violating state and local Jim Crow laws, among other offenses. In Mississippi, more than 300 were jailed.
After nearly five months, on Sept. 22, 1961, the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission issued its order to end the segregation in bus and rail stations, marking the first unambiguous victory in the Civil Rights Movement.
Obasohan (pictured left) said it means a lot to him to participate in the program.
"Not only will I be facilitating a conversation with students that have experienced first-hand the Freedom Riders journey, but I will also get to meet a few of the original riders, who will be there to meet and greet people," Obasohan said. "I think I will learn a lot from the original riders. This is a special opportunity for me because I get to meet the wise people that shaped my future."
"Freedom Riders" will premiere on the PBS show, "American Experience," on May 16, 8/9C.
For more information, go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders/2011/about or www.mcla.edu .