Students retrace original 1961 route

Corey Perrine/Staff
Joan Mulholland, one of the original Freedom Riders, gets off the bus at Carolina Ale House in Augusta during an overnight stop. College students and some original riders are sharing and reliving the 1961 experience.

In 1961: A mixed-race group of Freedom Riders boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses, ate at bus station lunch counters, slept in people's homes (because hotels were segregated), and endured beatings, arrests and jail as they integrated bus terminals in the Deep South.


In 2011: A mixed-race group of 40 college students, retracing the path of the original Freedom Riders, ate dinner at Augusta's Carolina Ale House on Tuesday, slept at a midscale hotel, and endured temporary losses of Wi-Fi connectivity and air conditioning aboard their charter bus.

Michellay Cole, who is majoring in African-American studies at the University of Maryland, laughed at the comparison. For her, the ride has still been an authentic one, even if its purpose has changed, she said.

"This trip is more of a moving classroom ... We do have more luxuries now. It's because of the first ride that this ride can be so luxurious," Cole said.

The 10-day Student Freedom Ride, organized by PBS' American Experience , is taking 40 students from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, through many of the places the historic Freedom Rides traveled 50 years ago, including an overnight stop in Augusta.

The ride precedes Freedom Riders , a documentary scheduled to air Monday on PBS.

Four Freedom Riders from 1961 -- Joan Mulholland, Ernest "Rip" Patton, and Helen and Robert Singleton -- are on the bus with students.

The new ride is a celebration and a tribute to the 436 Freedom Riders who stepped aboard more than 60 buses years ago. A conversation between young and old riders is also occurring. It asks: How did you make a difference? How can I?

Patton, who in 1961 was sent to Parchman State Prison Farm for his participation in the Freedom Rides, said, "One thing I hear these students say a lot is, 'I don't think I could do what you did.'"

He tells them the original riders fortified themselves with praying, singing, and reading the Scripture and Gandhi.

Samantha Williams, 23, a political science student at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, was struck by an exhibit of a two-sided Coke machine at a museum in Greensboro, N.C. There was a wall separating the sides. The side for whites displayed 5 cents; the side for blacks, 10 cents.

"I knew segregation was terrible, but I didn't realize how far it went," Williams said. "Every aspect of their lives was segregated."

Ray Arsenault, a Southern history teacher from the University of South Florida and one of the Student Ride organizers, has been bringing his own students on freedom rides like this one for years. Students are often changed by it, he said.

"They see Fred Shuttlesworth's church and how tiny it was," Arsenault said. "This was the command headquarters of this movement standing against all these huge institutions ... They begin to realize what cradle-to-grave segregation was like and what these people were up against."