Documentary offers chance to retrace route to civil rights

Julie VerHage, Lauren Fitch, and Jake Moerdyke

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Students at Grand Valley State University now have the chance to retrace the route of the original Freedom Riders as part of a documentary by PBS’s AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

The two-hour film, “Freedom Riders,” tells the story of the civil rights movement through testimony from some of the original Freedom Riders as well as law enforcement officers and journalists from the time who saw the events first-hand. “Freedom Riders” is currently available on DVD, and GVSU’s broadcast station, WGVU, will have a preview screening of the documentary sometime in mid-May 2011, said Tim Eernisse, development and marketing manager for WGVU.

The WGVU Engage committee is working to coordinate different outreach programs to promote the documentary and make seeing the documentary something special.

“Just to watch the documentary on your TV screen doesn’t do as much as being a part of it,” Eerinisse said.

Though plans have not been finalized, Eerinisse said the committee is hoping to hold screenings of “Freedom Riders” at Celebration Cinema, possibly with a re-creation of history through the use of “whites only,” “colored” and “LGBT” doors for entering the theater. He said the goal is to engage the community in what it would be like to experience that type of segregation.

“The biggest thing is getting the students to think, ‘Would you be able to get on that bus?’” Eerinisse said.

Beyond attending any screenings, 40 college students from across the country will be selected to ride the bus with the original Freedom Riders from May 6-16, 2011. This will be on the 50th anniversary of the original freedom rides.

A large public event will draw many of those involved in the original freedom rides to begin the tour in Washington, D.C. The bus will then travel through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. Stops will be made at historically-significant locations.

“Our mission has always been to use the power of public media to transform lives, and Freedom Rides represents a tremendous opportunity to do just that by uniting all Americans around the importance of civic engagement,” said Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, in a press release.

The opportunity was announced on Oct. 21. as “a journey retracing the historic civil rights bus rides that changed America.” Applications will be accepted until Jan. 17, 2011.

Eernisse said the station is encouraging GVSU students to apply to be a part of the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.

“We would love to have someone on the bus,” he said.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE would like to include students from a variety of backgrounds who are willing to share personal experiences and learn from the civil rights movement as well as today’s civic leaders. The students should also have strong written communication skills and commitment to civic engagement, according to the PBS website.

Those who are accepted to the bus ride will have no cost to participate, as AMERICAN EXPERIENCE will pay for transportation, hotels and food.

The first Freedom Riders were members of the Nashville Student Group, a local group of students who had successfully desegregated the lunch counters and movie theaters in the city, according to the Freedom Riders Foundation. Encouraged by their success, the Freedom Riders decided to introduce their strategies of non-violence throughout the South in order to directly challenge the region’s Jim Crow laws. From May to November 1961, about 400 white and black Freedom Riders rode buses and trains side-by-side into the deep South to protest segregation laws, according to the documentary.

“The leader of the rides was James Farmer,” said Louis Moore, a history professor at GVSU. “ … The Freedom Riders from Tennessee were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They took over the movement midway through the rides. In Alabama the violence forced the (Congress of Racial Equality) members to stop. Those from SNCC, however, realized that if violence stopped this movement, then white violence would stop other nonviolent civil rights movements.”

Created by veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson, the documentary will be the first feature-length film about this band of civil rights advocates.

“We hope that the film and the ride will inspire young people to see that the past was made up of courageous, ordinary people who were able to make great changes,” director Nelson in a PBS interview. “One of the things that the film shows is that success was not inevitable and only came from perseverance.”

The application for the bus ride along with more information about the program can be accessed at

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