Stetson Law student Maria Bogomaz invited to celebrate 50th Anniversary of 1961 Freedom Rides at the White House, met with Civil Rights heroes

Story by Professor Robert Bickel

Stetson University College of Law student Maria Bogomaz was the only law student invited from outside the Washington, D.C., area to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Rides at the White House on Oct. 19. She had an opportunity to meet with heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.

Stetson Law student Maria Bogomaz meets with John Seigenthaler.

Stetson Law student Maria Bogomaz meets with John Seigenthaler.

Law students from the Washington, D.C., area were invited to the program, which featured many of the original Freedom Riders; Diane Nash, legendary Nashville Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Movement leader; John Seigenthaler, former assistant to Robert F. Kennedy in 1960-62; and University of South Florida St. Petersburg Professor Ray Arsenault, the author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. The White House Office of Public Engagement and the National Endowment for the Humanities presented the program to celebrate the 1961 Freedom Rides, and to encourage the teaching of Civil Rights courses in American law schools.

For the past six years, Professor Arsenault and I have collaborated in conducting a travel course on the subject of Constitutional Law and the Civil Rights Movement, an experiential learning opportunity for students at USF and Stetson University who have completed coursework on the subject. The travel course is made possible in part because of a generous annual donation by the law firm of Florin Roebig. Stetson’s coursework in the legal history of American Civil Rights has been recognized as innovative, because our travel course offers students the opportunity to visit the places where major events in the Civil Rights Movement occurred, and to meet personally with many original movement veterans with whom they can discuss the history of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The students also travel to universities, centers, institutes and archives of Movement history in Montgomery, Nashville, Birmingham, Memphis and Selma.

Professor Arsenault brought special recognition to Stetson Law by requesting that our student, Maria Bogomaz, be invited to the event in Washington, D.C. A graduate of the University of Alabama Birmingham Honors Program, Ms. Bogomaz completed coursework at Stetson on the subject of Constitutional Law and the Civil Rights Movement and participated in our 2011 travel course.  She has also been recognized as the recipient of Stetson Law’s 2011 Public Service Fellowship. 

Maria Bogomaz takes a moment to reflect during the civil rights travel course at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Maria Bogomaz takes a moment to reflect during the civil rights travel course at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Ms. Bogomaz was able to interact at the event with both Diane Nash and John Seigenthaler, and to discuss her experiences in our program with representatives of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Bar Association. She also presented them with a copy of a Stetson-produced documentary film created by me and video producer Stan Arthur on the subject of the travel course, as well as information about Stetson Law’s newly established Civil Rights Video History Project. 

“I had seen the PBS Freedom Riders documentary, but watching it with the Freedom Riders themselves, as well as John Seigenthaler, was a different experience altogether,” Ms. Bogomaz said. “The most poignant, pure moment occurred when the soundtrack came to the first Freedom song. ‘I’m taking a trip on the Greyhound bus line…’ I started humming along, remembering how Freedom Rider Rip Patton taught us the words this past summer.  Suddenly, I realized that the sound wasn’t just coming from the stereo speakers; the Freedom Riders in the audience were singing. And that’s when things connected.  These people were not merely remembering history.  They were there.  They were the ones singing this song.  The words belonged to them, and the blood belonged to them, and now they were sitting together, singing the words to us: ‘Hallelujah, I am traveling, hallelujah, ain’t it fine.’ I knew the words. ‘Hallelujah, I am traveling down Freedom’s main line.’”

Ms. Bogomaz shared some of Diane Nash’s comments: “When asked about nonviolence, she said the concept of the Beloved Community is very deep. A lot of people did not understand it. Gandhi discovered a power, an energy, and a way for it to be harnessed, to be focused to bring about social change. It took us a long time and we’re still learning.”  

Mr. Seigenthaler interjected, “When you look at politics today, we still haven’t learned.”

After meeting Diane Nash, Ms. Bogomaz wrote, “I spoke to her, star-struck, and she took it with grace, lifted me up, and put me on firm footing, as if we were equals, as if it was nothing to talk to a hero.”