Freedom Riders Discuss Civil Rights History
Approximately 80 students heard firsthand about making civil rights history from Freedom Riders David and Winonah Myers as part of a noontime lecture sponsored by the Black Law Students Association at Stetson on Friday, Feb. 25, in Gulfport.
Among the law students was an 11-year-old named Alex who interviewed the Myers for a school essay that received national accolades. The Myers live in Tampa Bay and are the subject of a 2006 feature article by St. Petersburg Times writer Jeff Klinkenberg. According to the newspaper article, Winonah served the longest jail sentence of any Freedom Rider arrested for taking a stand against segregation.
After being arrested for participating in the Freedom Rides, Winonah refused to bail out of jail. She said, “It occurred to me that if this were to mean anything, then there should have been a little footnote in history that said that this is what we did to them for sitting next to us on the bus.”
The Supreme Court called for an end to segregation in interstate travel, making legal history when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy used the ruling to end Jim Crow travel. Winonah said people sitting next to people with different colored skin were burned and killed while riding buses in the turbulent 1960s.
Decades before the era of texting and Facebook and other social media, Winonah Myers said that the word went out among young people across the nation, creating a network of protest against civil rights abuses. She described being a teenager and telling her mother she wanted to risk her life to join the Freedom Rides in the 1960s.
“If we’re not gatekeepers of the law, it operates the wrong way,” moderator Professor Robert Bickel told the students gathered to hear the Myers talk.
Bickel co-teaches a summer travel course on constitutional law and civil rights with USF history professor Ray Arsenault that includes guest lectures by original Freedom Riders. Students in the course travel to Nashville, Memphis, Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, visiting with the original Freedom Riders who made civil rights history.
David Myers described his experiences as a young college student in the 1960s in Ohio, discovering that he could go to restaurants any time and any place he wanted because of the color of his skin, but that other people, including university presidents, could not. When the Freedom Rides began in 1961, David said that he felt compelled to join them. David joined the Freedom Rides in Montgomery, where he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was arrested when the bus he was riding reached Jackson, and he, Winonah and other Freedom Riders attempted to desegregate an interstate bus terminal under the authority of the Supreme Court’s decision in Boynton v. Virginia.
“Don’t leave your heart behind,” David urged the young law students attending the talk. “Let your heart be your guide in what is right and what is wrong.”
Professor Bickel urged the students in attendance to make a difference through civil responsibility and social justice. He reminded them that 500 young Freedom Riders changed the world.
On June 3, Bickel will take a new group of students enrolled in his course on a ride through civil right history, traveling in part by bus. They will have an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the relevance of legal history and to learn firsthand about how people can have a profound impact on upholding the law.
“Storytelling by the original movement veterans, who are there with us, lifts history off pages and makes it personal for students,” said Bickel.
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Post date: March 4, 2011
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