An exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of Freedom Riders was hosted in February during Black History Month at St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans. The traveling exhibition, created by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in partnership with PBS’ history series “American Experience,” offered a glimpse of the civil rights struggles and the courageousness of hundreds of black and white youth who from May through November 1961 rode buses together to challenge the validity of federal laws that prohibited segregation on interstate buses and at bus and train terminals.
St. Mary’s Academy librarian Michelle Ochillo secured the exhibit for February, the month traditionally designated as Black History Month.
“(The timing) would make it more meaningful and salient in everyone’s minds and present an opportunity to promote the legacy of New Orleans Freedom Riders,” Ochillo said.
St. Mary’s students and students from other schools that took advantage of an invitation to view the exhibit were treated to a two-hour PBS-aired “Freedom Riders” documentary (www.pbs.org/freedomriders) that premiered in May 2011. They also participated in discussions led by one of the Freedom Riders from New Orleans – Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons.
Involved at a young age
Smith-Simmons, 69, was a teenager in New Orleans in the middle of the civil rights struggle in the early 1960s and clearly remembers the days when black Americans were segregated on buses, trains, at train stations, in restaurants and even in the Catholic church. She shared her experiences with students so they would realize that things they take for granted today – eating in restaurants and riding a bus – were made possible through the efforts of previous generations.
“The people before us had to go through a lot to get to where we are today,” Smith-Simmons said.
Following in the footsteps of an older sister who led the charge to desegregate Louisiana State University of New Orleans, Smith-Simmons joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council at age 15 and then the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in New Orleans, which helped plan the Freedom Rides.
It was the national CORE in 1961 that tested the strength of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions – Morgan vs. Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960) – which made racial segregation illegal in interstate travel and bus terminals, waiting rooms and restaurants by organizing what is known as “The Freedom Ride.”
The first 13 “Freedom Riders” trained by CORE took a bus trip in May 1961 from Washington, D.C., heading south, where the court rulings were basically ignored. New Orleans was to be the final destination, but violence prevented the first bus from making it that far south.
A second bus leaving Alabama was torched by a gas bomb thrown by Klansmen. Riots, rallies and martial law ensued in Alabama by May 22.
Federal government steps in
U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy got involved by May 24, calling on southern governors to guarantee safe bus passage of the Freedom Riders from one state to another. But bus riders, including five New Orleans CORE members traveling from Montgomery, were arrested when they reached Mississippi, Smith-Simmons said. Smith-Simmons said she didn’t take that bus ride because she was a trainer at the CORE New Orleans office.
“Nobody had any idea it would become as large as it did,” Smith-Simmons said.
Attorney General Kennedy got involved again on May 29, this time requesting a desegregation order from the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The Freedom Rider movement expanded with training centers in New Orleans, Atlanta and Nashville. The ICC passed a sweeping desegregation order by Sept. 22, forcing all segregated signage to be removed from bus terminals and buses.
Other bus trips were coordinated by CORE throughout the South to test the Interstate Commerce Commission Ruling.
Smith-Simmons remembers taking a test run from the New Orleans Trailways Bus terminal with four others to McComb, Miss., where she was beaten. It was on this trip that she spoke directly with Attorney General Kennedy, who told her that agents from the FBI would escort them back to New Orleans. The five refused the help and rode back on the bus.
She also remembered participating in sit-ins and voter registration drives once the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
Ochillo and Smith-Simmons, believe the exhibit and the two-hour documentary are important for today’s students to understand the great sacrifices their ancestors made to achieve racial equality.
“They were willing to sacrifice their life for human rights … for everyone to have the right to work, eat in a restaurant and get on a bus to go to any destination,” Ochillo said. “And the fact that we had a New Orleans connection to the Freedom Riders, I wanted our kids and other New Orleans students to know about that. We helped individuals achieve civil rights.”
She also thinks it teaches a lesson on what a small group of committed people can achieve.
“I want our kids to understand that they will face social justice issues, and they are going to be called to stand up and give voice to people who cannot speak for themselves (for example, on abortion rights or other human rights),” Ochillo said. “ They need to think the Freedom Riders were a lesson to learn from – that you can pool together for a solution (and) to give voice to issues that need to be changed.”
“The Freedom Riders is a history lesson, but a current lesson in life that can be applied today,” Ochillo said.
St. Mary’s Academy, a member of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, was chosen as one of 26 host sites for the exhibit.