Riding with history
An MSU student joins 39 others to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rider movement
For Erica Shekell, the civil rights movement always has been her favorite area of history.
Throughout the past 10 days, Shekell has done more than just learn about history, though. She’s made it.
Shekell, a journalism and media arts and technology junior, has traveled by bus across the southern U.S. alongside 39 other college students as a member of PBS’s 2011 Student Freedom Ride, a journey through eight states that ends today in New Orleans.
The Student Freedom Ride commemorates the 50th anniversary of the original Freedom Riders movement, a pioneering effort launched by a group of 13 people who set off by bus across the South from Washington, D.C., in May 1961, arriving a little more than two weeks later in Jackson, Miss., where the trip ended in their arrest. Ultimately, more than 400 people would participate in some form of the Freedom Rides through November 1961.
That movement challenged racism and segregation across the South and drew national attention for its efforts.
This project, however, focuses on raising awareness about the history of those events and pairs current students with members of the original movement.
“Meeting the original Freedom Riders has been absolutely amazing,” Shekell said. “It’s just been interesting to hear their stories. … It really brings it home.”
Shekell was chosen to participate in the trip from among 1,000 applicants across the country through a competitive application process. She is one of two students from the Big Ten and the only student from Michigan to participate in the project.
The Student Freedom Ride also accompanies the PBS “American Experience” documentary “Freedom Riders,” a historical account that showcases the story of the riders. The documentary will air on PBS tonight at 9 p.m.
“I’m definitely not looking forward to it ending,” Shekell said. “It’s been an incredible experience.”
On the road
The trip has taken the riders to 20 different stops after starting in Washington, D.C., and has featured a number of visits to museums and historical landmarks.
Joining the students was Raymond Arsenault, the author of the book “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” and the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida. The PBS documentary “Freedom Riders” is based in part on his work.
Arsenault served both as a guide and historical expert for many of the stops on the tour and said the trip in some ways resembled the route he followed in the past with other groups of students.
This particular trip included stops in Rock Hill, S.C., the site of the country’s first “sit-ins,” and in Anniston, Ala., where one of the original buses was firebombed by a group of angry protestors in May 1961.
Shekell also said group members had the opportunity to view the PBS documentary “Freedom Riders” in a church in Montgomery, Ala., where Martin Luther King Jr. and members of the original freedom rides dealt with a group of about 10,000 enraged protestors.
“This was kind of the turning point in the freedom ride,” Shekell said. “It was really just powerful to be in that actual building and to watch what was happening there.”
In spite of those highlights, Shekell said it’s tough to choose just one memorable moment from the trip.
“I don’t think there was any one moment I’ll remember,” she said. “I’ll remember all of them.”
A unique opportunity
Shekell was first approached about the Student Freedom Ride by Janet Lillie, the associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.
Shekell also was recommended to participate in the trip by Geri Alumit Zeldes, an assistant professor in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. Zeldes said she immediately thought of Shekell and a fellow student when she heard details of the event.
“They were students in my Journalism 108 honors class, so I was well aware of their writing abilities and interest in social media,” Zeldes said. “They’re really interested in narrative and storytelling and just excellent students.”
Out of those two, only Shekell made the cut.
“She really is talented,” Lillie said. “She has a lot of skills that make her extremely attractive for this project.”
Zeldes said Shekell’s work ethic was on display in other areas outside of class, including a documentary film project that she helped research.
“I admired how hard of a worker she is,” Zeldes said. “To be able to see her put together videos and to do some research on the film really showed me that she was talented not only in storytelling but also visual journalism as well.”
Shekell has used those skills to chronicle the trip, taking numerous photos, contributing to a blog produced by the riders and using social media to deliver details of her travels. At times though, Shekell said it felt best to step back and take in the experience.
“There are moments I felt that have been too important to have my camera recording,” she said. “There have been a few times where I’m like, ‘No, I’m going to remember this — I don’t need to record it.’”
The original Freedom Riders were a diverse group and included both whites and blacks as well as males and females.
Many of the riders also were college students, Shekell said.
“A lot of them would actually drop out of college to go do this,” she said. “That would be a huge decision to make — a lot of the original Freedom Riders would write a will.”
The current group of students was equally diverse and featured participants from about 33 states and the District of Columbia. The participants hailed from countries as varied as China, Haiti and Tajikistan and represented community colleges, junior colleges, public universities and Ivy League schools.
“They have done absolutely incredible things on their campus and in their communities,” she said.
“There’s a lot of different issues that they’re very passionate about.”
Shekell also said meeting many of those riders has been a new experience she’ll remember when she returns to MSU.
“We will go back to our respective campuses and communities. From there, it’s still on us individually to work on issues,” she said. “But we just know … we’re not alone in this — I guess that’s what’s important.”