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Commentary: Following the Freedom Trail

Half a century ago, a few dozen people, some of them from Michigan, did something terribly brave. They exercised their constitutional right to ride Greyhound buses throughout the south.

They had interracial couples seated together, and African-Americans sitting up front. The U.S. Supreme Court had repeatedly ruled that segregation on interstate buses and in bus terminal facilities was unconstitutional, and therefore illegal.

They were called Freedom Riders, and they began their crusade in May, 1961. They expected to be arrested. They were, but what happened to them first was much worse. They were attacked by white mobs wielding pipes and baseball bats, while the local police mostly stood by and did nothing.

Walter Bergman, a law professor at Wayne State, was beaten so badly he spent the rest of his days in a wheelchair. A twenty-one year old future congressman named John Lewis had his skull fractured. When U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent a special observer to try and calm things, he was beaten unconscious.

Local ambulances refused to take the wounded to the hospital. Eventually, national and world reaction was so powerful that Washington forced the states to protect the Freedom Riders.

Before the summer ended, the administration ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to end segregation on the buses and in the terminals. The Freedom Riders had won.

More importantly, they inspired other civil rights actions that ended with the downfall of legal segregation. They were heroes.

Today, however, few remember them. But that may be about to change, at least in Michigan. On Sunday morning, a bus full of thirty-seven teenagers and a dozen adult chaperones will leave Detroit and follow the Freedom Riders’ trail. The students, black white and Hispanic, will spend thirteen days visiting historic civil rights sites in Mississippi and Alabama, and being trained in the art of nonviolent protest at the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta in Georgia.

They’ll meet with civil rights heroes like Diane Nash. One of their chaperones is the 89-year-old attorney and activist Dean Robb, who is bringing six teenagers from Leelanau County up north.

All this happened because the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights decided it was essential. Cary McGehee is the group’s chair; its founder was her father, the legendary human rights activist Bishop Coleman McGehee.

“A lot of high school students aren’t being taught their history,” Cary said, adding: “It is important they understand how we got where we are now, so that they can help move us forward to keep fighting for equal rights and justice.”

Olivia Kinker, a sixteen year old from Northport, couldn’t agree more. In an essay she wrote in a successful attempt to be included, she said, “I have lived in a very small town all of my life. The Freedom Tour would allow me to step out of my comfort zone.” 

Olivia added, “even though immense victories were won in the civil rights movement, we are still waging a war on discrimination today, whether it is in bullying at school or in the fight for gay rights.”

Cary McGehee told me she hopes this year‘s Freedom Tour will “help create some (new) social justice leaders.”

After reading the essays of students like Olivia, I have a hunch McGehee's hopes are going to be fulfilled.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.