A half-century ago, courageous civil rights activists rode Greyhound and Trailways buses into the segregated South, enduring brutal beatings by the Ku Klux Klan, fire bombings and the wrath of Birmingham (Alabama) Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. They came to be known as “Freedom Riders.”
On Wednesday, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, some of those same Freedom Riders will board buses in front of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building for a symbolic and celebratory returning freedom ride.
Following a 9 a.m. ET ceremony at the LBJ Building, they will join 49 student leaders in departing the Education Department, driving past the U.S. Supreme Court, Lincoln Memorial and on to Richmond, Virginia, the one-time capital of the Confederacy.
There, they will be greeted not by hatred, but by the welcoming handshakes of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner. Catherine E. Lhamon, the Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, will deliver the keynote remarks in a 1 p.m. ET observance in the Old House Chamber at the Virginia State Capitol.
“As we celebrate the gains we as a nation have made in the 50 years that have passed since President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, I hope that all of us – on and off this bus – will recommit ourselves to delivering the full promise of the law to all our nation’s students,” said Lhamon. “By uniting civil rights luminaries and student leaders, we collectively renew our commitment to advancing this important work.”
Among the Freedom Riders expected to join the bus ride are Dion Diamond, Rev. Reginald Green, John Moody, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, Charles Person and Hank Thomas. They will ride with the 49 student leaders from around the country who were selected through a competitive process. The young people come from diverse backgrounds and include high school, undergraduate, doctoral and law students. Each is committed to enhancing civil rights enforcement so that all people, regardless of background, may have equal access to participation in every facet of community life.
The students reside in 18 states and the District of Columbia, including: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin.
The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The measure ushered in a whole new era of change for millions of Americans to whom equality had been elusive for far too long. The law’s biggest impact came in promoting equality in voting, public accommodations, education and practically all federally funded programs and activities. An offshoot of the act was the creation in 1966 of the Office for Civil Rights, enforcing laws that prohibit discrimination in education. Wednesday’s bus ride will serve as a unique event to take the message of equality and justice on the road. It will be a mobile classroom offering an opportunity for the student leaders to interact with some of the pioneers of America’s civil rights movement.