Who Are Today’s Freedom Riders?

posted on: May 16, 2011

This month, many institutions are marking the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. Tonight, PBS is airing a documentary about the Freedom Riders. Oprah Winfrey reunited many of them on her show on May 4th. That day marked the anniversary of the first freedom rides, when the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) organized a group of 13 black and white Americans to board two buses in Washington, D.C. that were bound for the deep South. Their intent was to test the unenforced, unobserved Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, which allowed interstate travelers to ignore local segregation ordinances at transportation facilities.

As the buses traveled deeper into the South, the riders experienced increasing hostility and violence, which culminated on Mother’s Day in Alabama, where the first bus was firebombed and the doors held shut. The riders were able to escape a fiery death, only to be beaten with bats and lead pipes. Amazingly, as the riders recovered from their injuries, new volunteers took their place, and over the course of the summer and fall, more than 400 Americans endured violence and prison time as part of a sustained and coordinated movement to fight segregation in the South. Their efforts succeeded in November 1961, when the Interstate Commerce Commission issues rules prohibiting segregated transportation facilities.

Fifty years later, the situation is very different. We have an African American president in the White House. Yet, racism persists and many modern day activists continue to fight for equality, with help from philanthropy.

James Perry is one such contemporary freedom rider. As executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, he challenges discriminatory practices, such as the blatant actions of St. Bernard Parish leaders. After Hurricane Katrina, these elected officials passed a “blood relative ordinance,” which required single-family homeowners (90 percent of whom were white) to rent exclusively to their blood relatives. Perry’s organization ultimately got the Parish to stop enforcing the ordinance. His organization also took on racial disparities in federal and state housing programs, and so far homeowners have secured an additional $2 billion in compensation to repair houses ravaged by the storms.

You can read about this and other stories from some of today’s champions of justice in our new report written by Frontline Solutions, Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities: Impacts of Advocacy, Organizing and Civic Engagement in the Gulf/Midsouth Region.

How is your foundation helping modern day Freedom Riders battle injustice and promote equality? We would love to hear your stories of today’s heroes.

Lisa Ranghelli is the director of NCRP’s Grantmaking for Community Impact Project.