The 1961 Freedom Rides, a seminal moment in the civil rights movement, helped to shine a spotlight on how Southern states openly defied a ruling by the Interstate Commerce Commission that called for desegregation in interstate travel, backing an earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The interracial group, made up of 13 college students, planned to test the ruling by riding through the heart of the Jim Crow South of the 1960s: Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, and rally at the end of the journey in New Orleans, La.
Fifty years later, almost to the day, a Santa Monica College student will be part of a group that is retracing the historic journey that the original riders undertook through a vastly different South.
Carla Orendorff, 22, was one of 40 students chosen from a nationwide search to participate in the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, an experiential learning opportunity for college students in conjunction with the broadcast of “Freedom Riders” and the 50th anniversary of the original bus trip. The ride, which began in Washington on May 6, is an event that Orendorff, the daughter of an indigenous rights activist, has been looking forward to for a long time.
“I’ve always had an interest in the history of the civil rights movement,” Orendorff, a film major, began in an interview the day before she flew to Washington, D.C. “I’ve always been curious about how activism looks at different times in history and in different communities.”
Filmmaker Stanley Nelson, as well as some of the original Freedom Riders, is accompanying the students on the ride. “It’s going to be an incredible journey,” said Orendorff. “The Freedom Ride is an important part of our history. There’s nothing better than learning from the people who actually participated in it, and I’m excited to hear what they have to say.”
Nelson is producing a documentary for PBS that will air on Monday, May 16 called “Remembering the Freedom Riders,” where he interviews some of the surviving members who embarked on the historic trip to the South half a century ago.
The documentary will be part of PBS’ “American Experience” series.
American Experience Executive Producer Mark Samuels said the story of the civil rights era is still relevant today and has been replicated in other countries.
“At ‘American Experience,’ we think history is fascinating, but more importantly, we know it informs almost every social and political decision made today. We saw that in Egypt, where protesters looked to the American civil rights movement for instruction and inspiration,” Samuels said. “Fifty years after the original Freedom Rides, young people all over the world are once again having their voices heard.”
Many of the riders in 1961 endured beatings, arrests and had one of their buses firebombed. One of Orendorff’s heroes, civil rights leader Diane Nash, insisted that the rides continue, and through their efforts, new policies outlawing racial discrimination in interstate lunch counters, buses and trains and waiting rooms were adopted on Nov. 1, 1961.
Orendorff completed an essay on why she wanted to go on the journey and after a subsequent interview, learned of her selection last month. “I’m the only girl from Southern California,” she noted.
Orendorff said she is interested in learning first-hand from some of the original riders what obstacles they faced as well as learning how African Americans coped with the oppression of Jim Crow.
“I’m really interested in finding out what are the struggles of different communities,” she said. “Activism looks different in different communities.”
The film student will be blogging about her experiences on the trip as well as recording images of the people and places that she sees. But Orendorff said she was really looking forward to interacting with the other riders, including some of those who took the journey in 1961.
“I think this is one of the most exciting aspects of the ride,” she said. “I’m very excited to be a part of this intergenerational conversation, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what kinds of connections we can make.”
The 40 student Freedom Riders were chosen from approximately 1,000 applicants and represent a diverse cross-section of America, much like the original Freedom Riders, who were black and white, men and women. The 2011 students come from 33 states and the District of Columbia, and others who grew up in far-flung countries like China, Tajikistan and Haiti.
Samuels pointed out the differences in technology that contemporary students can avail themselves to as opposed to the travelers of 50 years ago to look through their own prisms of history.
“They’re using new and very different tools to do that, but drawing on lessons from history to inform how they use those tools,” said the executive producer. “It’s those lessons from 1961 and how they are informing civic engagement today that we look forward to exploring on this ride.”
Orendorff cited SMC professor Melanie Klein as one of her school’s educators who has inspired her the most. “She really encouraged her students to get out and experience things for themselves,” Orendorff, who took several courses from Klein, said.
Klein, an associate faculty member of sociology and women’s studies, is equally impressed with her former student. “Carla is one of a handful of students over the last 10 years who has taken the information (learned in the classroom) and lived it,” she said.
Klein said she was a little surprised when Orendorff returned to take another class with her after the initial women’s studies course. “She was kind of a quiet student,” the professor recalled.
Orendorff calls Klein her mentor and said her former professor motivated her to always aspire to reach new heights. “(Klein) has this wonderful spirit of activism and she really believed in me when I was in her classroom,” Orendorff said. “She really encouraged me to make those human connections and I feel very inspired by her.”
Taking part in 2011 Freedom Student Ride seemed like an experience that Orendorff would pursue, says her mentor. “I wasn’t surprised at all when she told me that she was planning to go,” Klein said. “It seemed like the logical thing for her to do.
“Inspiration is a call to action to do something in the world for students like Carla, and that’s not something that you see very often as a teacher,” she added.
As one of a select few who will experience a passage through one of the nation’s most turbulent eras, Orendorff views her participation in the Student Freedom Ride as an opportunity to be a part of history.
“I always try to make history a very personal thing,” she concluded. “The civil rights movement is so rich with stories and I’m so excited to be going on such an incredible journey.”
The students will return on Monday, May 16.