Democratic Sen. John Horhn of Jackson, second from right, presents Hank Thomas a Freedom Rider who now lives in Georgia, with a resolution honoring him for his work during the Freedom Rides of 1961 in Senate Chambers at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, March 16, 2011. That year, more than 400 blacks and whites traveled on the buses into the South. Thomas was among many people who were beaten and jailed for challenging segregated interstate travel on public carriers. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Charles Reed Jr. is skipping his college graduation ceremony to do something much more significant to him: retracing the original 1961 Freedom Ride and paying tribute to those who helped win the civil rights that his generation enjoys.
Reed says missing Friday's graduation doesn't compare to the sacrifices the original Freedom Riders made when they challenged the South's segregation laws: quitting jobs, dropping out of college and, ultimately, risking their lives.
"What the Freedom Rides did 50 years ago paved the way for what I have today as an African-American,'' said Reed, a 21-year-old business administration major at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
Reed is one of 40 college students chosen from nearly 1,000 applicants who will join a handful of the original Freedom Riders on an eight-day journey from Washington, D.C., through the South.
Congress of Racial Equality head James Farmer, six other black people and six white people participated in the first Freedom Ride, which left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. The trip was to test whether southern states were implementing Boynton v. Virginia, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred segregation in public-transportation facilities.
The trip carried riders through Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. The group faced violent attacks in the Deep South from white mobs who opposed integration. One of the buses was firebombed in Anniston, Ala., and the riders were beaten. A Ku Klux Klan mob attack in Birmingham, Ala., drew national headlines and international embarrassment for the Kennedy administration. The first rides ended with a federally escorted flight to New Orleans.
As news of the violence spread, hundreds joined the Freedom Rides. Hundreds were jailed that summer in Jackson, Miss., and transferred to the infamous Parchman state penitentiary after the local jail ran out of space. The demonstrations became a defining point in U.S. civil rights history.
After events in Washington, this year's Freedom Riders will head south on a bus on Sunday. Along the way they'll stop in a number of cities, including those where the 1961 riders were harassed, physically attacked and arrested. The students plan to use social media to share their experiences during the trip, which will end May 16 in New Orleans.