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Freedom Riders

Samantha William's Blog

Arkansas's own Samantha Williams gets a seat on the bus!

posted by Larmon on 15 Apr 2011

Samantha Williams, a native of Bryant and a political science major at the University of Arkansas, has been selected as a 2011 Student Freedom Rider.

Between May and December of 1961, 436 Freedom Riders took part in more than sixty Rides. They had various points of origination and termination, but all Riders had the same goals: to test and challenge segregated travel facilities throughout the South, and awaken the nation’s conscience to the reality and injustice of segregation.

Samantha will join 39 other students as they retrace the original Freedom Rides beginning in Washington, D.C. and ending in Jackson, Miss. and explore the values of tolerance and civic engagement.

To learn more about Samantha and the other student riders visit www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders/2011/meet-the-riders.

Be sure to check back often for updates from Samantha as she continues her journey.

“American Experience: Freedom Riders” premieres Monday, May 16, at 8 p.m.


Q&A with Arkansas's Student Freedom Rider, Samantha Williams

posted by Samantha on 15 Apr 2011

As soon as AETN learned that an Arkansas resident had a seat reserved on the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, we were excited to find out why she decided to apply and what she hoped to learn from this once-in-a-lifetime experience. We had the opportunity to ask her a few questions and these are her responses. We look forward to following her journey and sharing it with you!

Arkansas’s rider is Samantha Williams, from Bryant, and is a political science major at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Samantha will embark on May 6 and return May 16. For more information about the 2011 Student Freedom Ride and “Freedom Riders”, visit  www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders

Why did you apply to “get on the bus?”

Samantha: I heard about the opportunity through the U of A and was instantly intrigued. I am a political science major and very interested in American history and politics. The Civil Rights Movement in particular is a topic I have loved studying about ever since junior high school, so when this opportunity presented itself I knew I had to apply. I used to be journalism major as well, so the Student Freedom Ride seemed like such a perfect fit in that it combines writing with civic engagement. Although I have not been a victim of racism, I have witnessed firsthand the prejudice that so many people still have toward others who are different from themselves. I wanted to "get on the bus" to share my experiences with other young people and create a positive dialog amongst individuals of all colors. How can we continue to move forward while still acknowledging the progress that we have made as a nation? Young people sometimes think they can't make a difference and that's true if you refuse to get involved. But the fact is that we can all make a difference if we step up and speak out for what is right. Additionally, I wanted to pay tribute to the selfless men and women who risked their lives for equality. They are the true heroes.

What do you hope to experience?

Samantha: I have no idea what to expect! I'm really hoping to use this experience to learn more about the other riders and the issues they face as we are all so diverse and from every part of the country. I'm hoping to learn more about the ways in which I can make this world better and how to effectively promote tolerance and acceptance. And of course, I am beyond excited to speak to the original Freedom Riders — they are the reason I've been given this once and a lifetime opportunity. I almost feel guilty in a way. I'm going on this 10 day journey where quite frankly, I don't expect to be ridiculed, taunted or physically threatened. The Freedom Riders didn't have that same luxury. But even though the circumstances are vastly different, I really want to try and see what they truly went through.

Why is this 50-year-old story of Freedom Riders important to people in today’s world?

Samantha: There are so many reasons the Freedom Riders' story still resonates with people today. Take a look around when you go to the grocery store, to school or out to dinner. You'll see people of all races interacting with one another and going about their lives side by side. That wasn't always the case, of course. The rider's made that possible! How awesome is that? Had they not stood up for what was right, who knows what kind of nation I would have grown up in. At the same time, it'd be silly to pretend as if racism does not still exist. It does and I've witnessed it, whether it be toward one of my best friends who is Palestinian or an African American friend in high school who was told by a classmate that "she should be lynched." I strongly believe that in order to completely eradicate racism and intolerance, we must understand our history and that includes the Freedom Rides.


Day 1: The Story of 'Now'

posted by Samantha on 09 May 2011

The day before the original Freedom Riders departed Washington D.C. for the first ride in 1961, they came together in what was half-jokingly referred to as the “last supper.” They settled on Chinese food — unfamiliar cuisine to a then 19-year-old John Lewis.  I say “half-jokingly” because, though they hoped for the best, they knew that the consequences of their impending ride could potentially lead to death. Their lives were on the line and they had spent months preparing for this nonviolent movement to eradicate segregation in the South.

Tonight, as I sat amongst my fellow student riders and Ray Arsenault (the author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice) eating Chinese food just as the Freedom Riders had done, I began to understand the weight of the situation. The journey that began 50 years ago at a Greyhound bus station in D.C. will continue tomorrow from the very same place.

Author of Freedom Riders, Ray Arsenault and Freedom Rider Rip Patton standing in the same place the bus departed for the first time in 1961 (in DC) before we boarded.

Earlier this afternoon, Jalaya Liles Dunn from the Children’s Defense Fund gave an incredible presentation about “charting the next route for freedom and justice.” As she outlined the ways in which we can improve our communities, she emphasized the importance of understanding ourselves, engaging others who share a common thread, and creating “the story of now.”

The Freedom Riders “had a story of self and built themselves into a story of we,” she said.

“They created the story of ‘now,’” added Peter Davis, a student rider from Cambridge, Mass.  On May 17 when the bus is emptied and we go our separate ways, we cannot forget the importance of writing our own story of ‘now.’ As individuals we are weak, but together there is no stopping us.

It cannot be done alone and it certainly can’t be done with just 40 students. It will take an entire movement of young people to become civically engaged and respond to the pressing issues facing our generation. Whether it is racism or other forms of intolerance, education or foreign policy — there are a number of issues that directly affect each of our lives and they will not be corrected if we continue sitting by, apathetically waiting for someone else to fix the problem.

Diane Nash eloquently said, “You have no control until you exert control.” She’s right — our voices will not be heard until we turn up the volume.


Day 2: Transforming Apathy into Activism

posted by AETN on 10 May 2011

Walking off the bus to a roaring round of applause at Mary Washington University (UMW) today, I almost instantly understood the importance of community. As we approached the welcoming crowd we were greeted with smiles, kind words of encouragement and a genuine sense of joy that we were continuing the legacy of the Freedom Riders.

With Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland standing next to her mug shot at the student produced exhibit at the University of Mary Washington on our first day.

UMW has spent months preparing for the Student Freedom Ride, creating an exhibition, holding on campus events about the rides and heavily promoting Charles Reed, Jr. — a graduate of UMW as of today. The administration, faculty and student body made a concerted effort to promote both the work of the original riders and the next generation of student activists. They made myself and the other students feel like we were representing something bigger than ourselves.

As a young person attending college in a relatively small community (or at least what feels like a small town atmosphere), I have found that the same support I witnessed today at UMW is sometimes lacking in my own environment. That is not to say that civic engagement in not encouraged at my campus, but I do feel that there is always more that can be done. The Civil Rights Movement, African American history, and the significance of the Freedom Riders are topics that should serve as constant reminders of this country’s long struggle for equality.

Although institutionalized segregation ended many years ago, more subtle forms of segregation and discrimination still exist — a sentiment expressed by many original Riders on our trip. In Arkansas, there is a clear divide between black and white neighborhoods and schools as a direct result of years of social inequality. In most cases I don’t think it is intentional segregation, but rather acceptance of the status quo. However, I strongly believe that in order to transform our culture and create a more balanced economic system, we need to acknowledge as a community that we will no longer accept a way of life just because that’s the way it’s always been.

Sometimes all it takes to trigger action is a call to action. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the many issues going on in America and throughout the world, and when you feel alone in your desire to implement changes in your own community it makes it that much more difficult to feel empowered and initiate change. But when people come together to vocalize their needs and wants, and older generations show young people that they believe we really can do great things, the dynamic will slowly shift from apathy to activism.


Day 3: A conversation with Maricela Aguilar

posted by Samantha on 16 May 2011



Day 4: Hallelujah, I'm a Travelin

posted by Samantha on 16 May 2011

As a kid growing up in a traditional Christian church, there was nothing unordinary about singing hymns every Sunday morning and more often than not, up to three times a week. We were singin’ fools. I knew the songs by heart and it became part of my culture and lifestyle.

When I began researching more information about the Freedom Riders, I found that music was an important part of both the Ride itself and the African American community. On the first day of the trip, original Riders Rip Patton and Bernard Lafayette, Jr. led us in a freedom song. I had never heard of such a thing before.

“Buses are a comin’, oh yeah. Buses are a comin’, oh yeah. Buses are a comin’, buses are a comin’, buses are a comin’, oh yeah.” We sang these words with the original Riders, a surreal experience to say the least. They explained to us that singing helped them cope with the emotionally draining circumstances. When the Riders were jailed for breaking segregation laws, they would sing in their cells until they could sing no more. When the prison guard would tell them to keep quiet and threaten to punish them, they would sing louder.

A few minutes after our song began, we had added lines like, “They can take my mattress” and eventually, “They can take my toothbrush.” Lafayette, however, had to stop and inform us that when it got to this point they had to remind one another that there were upwards of 20 people in a cell fit for four. Singing with their mouths barely open was the solution they agreed upon. Whatever it took to retain even the smallest ounce of dignity and pride.

Then, when I viewed Stanley Nelson’s documentary on the Freedom Rides, I heard a familiar tune. “Hallelujah, I’m a travelin’. Hallelujah, ain’t it fine?
Hallelujah, I’m a-travelin’ down freedom’s main line.” It sounded familiar. Where had I heard this melody before? My mind traced the tune all the way back to childhood when at church, I would sing the lyrics, “Hallelujah! Thine the glory. Hallelujah! Amen. Hallelujah! Thine the glory. Revive us again.” The Riders tweaked the lyrics to fit their experience.

There was something very powerful in knowing that a song I sang as a small kid had been sung decades before by people I consider heroes. Songs that got them through one of the most dangerous events of their lives, got me through my own struggles. In a strange way, it connected us. It was almost as if a symbolic torch was being passed to 39 other students and myself. In a moment, their past met my present.


Day 5: Love Never Fails

posted by Samantha on 16 May 2011

What is love? Is it toleration of things you don’t understand? Is it an attachment to someone or a display of affection? Maybe it’s all of these things or none at all. I’ve lived my life believing that I understood love — that I knew how to love. Today in Anniston, AL. I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about it.

Over the past few days I’ve spoken with our resident celebrities (i.e., the Freedom Riders), strolled through museums and historic sites, and sang beautiful, inspiring songs of freedom. But after rolling into Anniston, the parade I had been marching in suddenly stopped and the rain started to pour. In my naivity, I believed that when we arrived in “The Heart of Dixie” the entire city would be ready to right the wrongs of 1961, when Anniston residents firebombed a bus filled with human beings.

I am very appreciative of the city providing us dinner and a place to stay for the night. I spoke with several members of the community whom I believe had pure hearts and truly wanted to overcome the town and the country’s dark past. After dinner Wednesday night, we attended a ceremony in which we joined hands in singing “We Shall Overcome” and wept as we witnessed reconciliation between Hank Thomas, a man that was on the bus that day, and a man whose father was in the mob.

As touched as I was to see these sincere moments, it is my responsibility as an American to give an authentic account of what I felt watching these events unfold before my eyes. Reconciliation was soon overshadowed by speeches about economic development and an agenda to prop up the local economy from what sounded like a used car salesman — and that salesman was the mayor.

The Freedom Riders were acknowledged sparingly, while community members who helped put on the events were treated as the true heroes. Hank was given his time to speak (although it was not scheduled in the program) and Charles Person, another Rider on the bus that day, was able to speak at the dedication of a mural but without a microphone where only a handful of people (mainly media) could hear him. Meanwhile, local politicians were heard loud and clear as they incessantly encouraged us to come back, start businesses, and tell all of our friends about the great initiatives going on in the city. While it may sound nonsensical to assume these decisions were intentional, a conversation I had with a local Anniston resident does not make it any easier to dismiss my initial reaction that some people still did not understand the gravity of the situation.

I met a black woman, most likely in her late 60s, who revealed to me that, “this is not a city for black people.” She said that schools are still mostly segregated, black people can only get a job if it’s “in the back scrubbing floors,” and poverty in the black community is not the exception, but the rule. I could hear the pain in her voice when she said she couldn’t wait to leave Anniston. All of this she said an arm’s length away from the mayor, who approached us and asked that she quiet down because the program was starting.

I must commend the Freedom Riders who had not one unkind word to say about the ceremonies and rejoiced in the progress the city has made. When Charles Person was asked how he feels 50 years later being in the place he nearly lost his life, all he could say was how happy he was to see progress, no matter how small. He said that nonviolence is more than just being nonviolent. It must be rooted in love, he said. And here I am, feeling angry and confused. Nope, I did not understand love.

Charles loves the men who punched him and threw him to the ground as he was struggling to breath. He loves the men dressed in white, hooded robes and the women cheering them on with babies on their hips. He knew at 18-years-old that without love, the movement would not succeed and he knows today that without it we cannot move forward. There’s a Bible verse that reads, “Love never fails.” Charles taught me that this isn’t just a cliché phrase — it’s a lifestyle. Standing in Anniston at the spot where Charles was beaten, I realized that he did not fail, the Freedom Riders did not fail, and most of all, love never failed.


Day 7: On the 'N' Word

posted by Samantha on 17 May 2011