FAYETTEVILLE – Samantha Williams, a junior political science major in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas, is one of 40 students nationwide selected to “get on the bus” for the 2011 Student Freedom Ride next month.
Williams is from Bryant, and is a graduate of Central Arkansas Christian School. She is the daughter of Perry and Debra Williams of Bryant.
She and the other students will spend 10 days, May 6-16, following the route of the historic Freedom Rides of 1961, when more than 400 people — blacks and whites, men and women — travelled by bus through several southern states in a non-violent challenge to the segregation laws of the time. Several of the original Freedom Riders will join the students in what is being described as a “moving classroom.” The students will hear[more] from first-hand participants about the events of the time, the dangers they faced, and their commitment to the cause of civil rights.
“I'm really excited to have been chosen to participate in the Student Freedom Ride,” said Williams. “I'm honored to have the opportunity to retrace the historic route that the original Freedom Riders took to stand up for equality. I want to share my experiences on the bus — speaking with civil rights leaders and my fellow riders — with my friends and peers at the University of Arkansas, to promote tolerance, activism and civic engagement.”
Williams was chosen from nearly 1,000 applicants on the basis of an essay she wrote about her reasons for wanting to participate and her thoughts on the role of social media and technology in civic engagement today, as well as her extracurricular activities. She joins a diverse cross-section of students, representing 33 states and the District of Columbia and a broad range of schools, from state universities and junior colleges to private Ivy League institutions.
The 2011 Student Freedom Ride will start in Washington, D.C., with two days of events at the Newseum that will bring together many who were involved in the original rides. The students’ bus will depart on Sunday, May 8, and travel through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana, stopping along the way at historically significant locations. The journey will end in New Orleans, the intended destination of the 1961 Freedom Riders.
Highlights of the trip will include events at Atlanta’s Morehouse College with original Freedom Rider Bernard Lafayette; a ribbon cutting at the Anniston Bus Station, the town where one of the original buses was firebombed in 1961; and an event at Montgomery’s historic First Baptist Church, where the original Freedom Riders, along with Martin Luther King Jr. and 1,500 others, were trapped by a mob until federal marshals rescued them.
The Student Freedom Ride will end in New Orleans on May 16 with a public event and rally to welcome the students and the original Freedom Riders 50 years later.
Filmmaker Stanley Nelson, who directed the acclaimed documentary Freedom Riders, will also join the students on their journey, along with University of South Florida Professor Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, on which Nelson’s film is partially based. The 2011 Student Freedom Ride has been organized by the PBS program American Experience, which will broadcast Nelson’s film on Monday, May 16, at 8 p.m. on AETN and other PBS stations around the country.
“At American Experience, we think history is fascinating, but more importantly, we know it informs almost every social and political decision made today,” said Mark Samels, executive producer of American Experience. “We saw that in Egypt, where protestors looked to the American civil rights movement for instruction and inspiration. Fifty years after the original Freedom Rides, young people all over the world are once again having their voices heard. They’re using new and very different tools to do that, but drawing on lessons from history to inform how they use those tools. It’s those lessons from 1961 and how they are informing civic engagement today that we look forward to exploring on this ride.”