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Freedom Riders Relive History

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NASHVILLE, Tenn.-  Nashville is known for its rich history and culture, but some may not be aware of the city's deep roots in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

A group of civil rights pioneers recently retraced their place in history.

In late January, a group of the original Nashville Freedom Riders along with students from Vanderbilt, Fisk and Tennessee State University and American Baptist College retraced the route of the original Freedom Riders in 1961.

The Freedom Riders consisted of an integrated group of men and women who aspired to make a change in society. They boarded trains and buses and planes bound for the South to challenge the region's segregation laws for interstate public transportation facilities.

The demonstrators were members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights organization established in 1942 by students at the University of Chicago.

They sought to test the U.S. Supreme Court ruling disallowing segregated seating, deeming it unconstitutional.

On May 4, 1961, the Freedom Riders boarded a bus in Washington D.C., headed to New Orleans but that original group never made it farther than Alabama.

Ten days into their journey, the group split into two groups. One bus was bombed in Anniston, Ala., while another bus was met by a mob in Birmingham. The riders were severely beaten.

After the violence in Alabama, that's when the Nashville riders stepped in.

Among the participants in Nashville was U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who was beaten and jailed in the 1961 Freedom Rides.

A graduate of Fisk University and American Baptist College in Nashville, Lewis had organized sit-ins at Nashville's segregated lunch counters.

"It is my hope that the young people and those not so young will learn what another generation did to bring about change," Lewis said during the recent reunion. "It was daring, dangerous but people had the courage to do what I call, get in the way to make things different to make things better."

Nearly five decades after his fight for justice, Lewis stood in awe after discovering at an Alabama rest stop that he was pictured on a painting honoring the Civil Rights Movement.

"If someone told me back in 1961 almost 50 years ago that one day a poster with my picture depicted in the struggle for civil rights would be in the visitor center in Alabama, I would have said ‘you're crazy you're out of your mind, you don't know what you're talking about.' It's amazing to me really," he said.

Lewis said during their effort, just going to the wrong rest room could lead to problems.

"If you tried to use the facility you could be arrested. You could be beaten up the moment we walked through the door," Lewis said.

Activists such as the Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian said the ride had to continue or the Civil Rights Movement would have come to a fast end.

Vivian was a student at American Baptist College and a leader for the Nashville Student Movement. He was also a rider on the first "Freedom Bus" into Jackson, Miss., and worked on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's executive staff in campaigns in Birmingham and Selma, Ala.; the March on Washington in Washington, D.C.; Danville, Va.; Augustine, Fla., and Chicago.

"There was always total discussion until there was total agreement but my wife figured just like I did that we were called to do what we were doing. That it was part of the reason why we were alive," Vivian said.

The original Freedom Riders wanted the students accompanying them on their reunion trip to be mindful of their living history lesson.

"Will they understand that they have a second vocation? That no matter what they do in whatever city they're in there's a second vocation? And it won't matter whether they're black or white is to understand the nature of a society past and present and that they have some vision of what they want it to be on their watch? That's the most important part of what we're doing," Vivian said.

For Vivian and the Rev. Jim Lawson, the years may passed but the memories remain fresh in their minds.

Lawson, a visiting professor at Vanderbilt University, helped organize sit-ins in Nashville to desegregate downtown lunch counters. He was expelled from Vanderbilt Divinity School. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once called Lawson "the leading violence theorist in the world" who was also active in civil rights struggles in Alabama and Mississippi.

"While I remember and have very good memories about the freedom ride, in my mind is how that history helps to motivate me in today's world," Lawson said. "My mind is on how that history helps to motivate me in today's world."


The Nashville Freedom Riders faced their biggest test in Montgomery, Ala.

"They don't teach you this in the history books," said Vanderbilt student Sherie Byrd during the historic reunion.

She was among Nashville-area college students who got a lesson in living history during the Freedom Ride reenactment to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where King was a pastor. They listened to original Nashville Freedom Riders tell their stories.
After violence forced the original Freedom Riders to abandon their quest to desegregate interstate buses, the Nashville riders stepped in. They had no idea what awaited them in the capital city.

"When we arrived at the station it was so quite it was so quiet it was almost eerie," Lewis said.

That peace quickly turned into violence.

"The moment we started down the steps and angry mob just came out of nowhere," he said. "People had lead pipes, bricks, stones."

Jim Zwerg, the only white student on the bus, received the brunt of the beating. Zwerg was an exchange student at Fisk University during the 1960s.

"I was beaten quite quickly and very quickly I was unconscious," he said. "Then I woke up and I was in the back of a moving vehicle and I heard white southern voices talking to me and I knew I was taken out to be killed or lynched."

He was taken to safety. Many believe his words from a hospital bed helped to push others to continue on.

"Segregation must be stopped it must be broken down we're going on to New Orleans no matter what happens," he said that day.

At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, students were able to build that bridge from the past to the present.

"These were everyday people, everyday students who went against the status quo of the time period to say hey we need to make a change in society," said Laquida Singleton of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Eventually they were able to make the change, though they never made it by bus to their final destination of New Orleans. When they reached the bus terminal in Jackson, Miss., they were arrested. More riders followed, but they were put behind bars as well.

By the end of the summer of 1961, the riders had forced change in America. Never again would blacks be treated like second class citizens.

"I just thought that was amazing how they could just stand there is the mist of all of that," Byrd said.

For the riders and students alike, the trip was more than just a history lesson. It was a call to action, an example of what can happen if people work together to help change an injustice.

"If you find a problem see what you can do to solve it and you make the change, you make the difference," Byrd said.

From time to time, the Nashville Freedom Riders said they get to together to remember the past. They're thankful that they're still alive to tell their stories.

"Just to get their perspective on what we're to do to continue their fight has been really powerful," said Vanderbilt student Caroline Knox.

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