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Freedom Riders On Display

by Shermika Dunner 

Imagine being so afraid for your life that you can’t leave your seat. Angry mobs await with tear gas, baseball bats and, even worse, guns. Racial epithets are hurled, and instead of state or governmental protection, you are at the mercy of the mob.

These images are not imaginary, but frightenly real. They occurred during May through November of 1961 all over the Deep South and were experienced by the Freedom Riders. The Freedom Riders were a group of Americans, black and white, from a myriad of backgrounds, who shared a common thread: the desire to effect change and have blacks treated as equals. The Freedom Riders rode integrated buses into the segregated South to challenge Boynton vs. Virginia, a Supreme Court decision that made it unlawful to have racial segregation in restaurants and bus stations.

Birmingham, Alabama, is synonyomous with the Civil Rights era, and mentions of the city often conjure memories of Bull Conner, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and an endless array of faces that are unknown and unsung. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the brave Freedom Riders, the Birmingham History Center is showing a traveling exhibit that tells the story of the 1961 Freedom Rides using pictures from actual rides, historical documents and a cell phone audio guide where Freedom Riders tell their own experiences.

Using my cell phone as a guide, I walked through the exhibit, housed in different parts of the center, and listened to the harrowing stories of Freedom Riders like Hank Thomas, who describes being beaten by angry white mobs.

The exhibit ends with photographs of jailed Freedom Riders in 1961, contrasted with more current pictures of them from 2007. Many, if not all, of the Freedom Riders went on to perform work related to social justice, Civil Rights and humanitarianism.

The exhibit is free and on display through September 29 at the Birmingham History Center, located at 1731 First Ave. North, Suite 120. The center is open from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. during the week and on Saturdays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

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