Stafford resident Frank White joined the Air Force in 1957, three days after finishing high school. Stationed in Texas, he traveled by Greyhound bus to visit his family in Virginia. For days and nights, he remained dressed in his uniform, sitting quietly in the back as the bus barreled through the deep South.
“Don’t make waves, don’t draw attention to yourself,” the young airman was warned by his African American superiors.
Mr. White remembered those travels as he sat at the front of the bus last weekend, one of 21 area residents who joined 46 UMW students, as well as faculty and administrators, to trace the route of the 1961 Freedom Rides during fall break. This social justice experience celebrates Dr. James L. Farmer Jr., the late civil rights pioneer and Mary Washington history professor who orchestrated the historic protest to desegregate interstate travel.
After the success of last year’s civil rights trip, James Farmer Multicultural Center (JFMC) Director Marion Sanford and Assistant Director Chris Williams wondered what they could do to make this one even more meaningful. With the 100th anniversary of Dr. Farmer’s birth approaching and the University announcing a centennial celebration in his honor, they decided to dedicate this year’s experience to his signature movement and lifelong commitment to social justice.
“Dr. Farmer is one of those names that should roll off the tongue, but it does not,” said Williams, who often visited Farmer at his Spotsylvania home before the professor’s death in 1999. “Every day, we ask how can we honor him more? Making sure these stories are told in the way they should be is a start.”
With the encouragement and leadership of Vice President for Equity and Access Sabrina Johnson, they invited the Fredericksburg community and alumni to join the trip. Like Mr. White, several who participated knew Dr. Farmer or were taught by him at Mary Washington.
Early Saturday morning, the UMW group departed Fredericksburg, which had been the first stop for the 1961 Freedom Riders, who felt relieved when they didn’t encounter intimidation, as they did when they ventured further south.
A wide array of emotions swept over the UMW group as they traveled through North Carolina, Alabama and Georgia, stopping where the Freedom Riders did and visiting significant civil rights landmarks and museums. Together, they explored the painful truths of segregation, racism and injustice pervasive throughout the American South and beyond that persists today, over half a century later. Throughout the weekend, Mary Washington faculty and administrators led “town halls” to help the travelers process and discuss their experiences.
Senior Jason Ford felt anger and desperation when he visited the Anniston, Alabama, bus terminal where the Freedom Riders’ bus was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan, who brutally attacked the riders as they disembarked.
Sophomore Jessica Lynch cried upon seeing the cement chunk removed from the skull of Carol Denise McNair, one of the four young girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham.
Senior Rahima Morshed was heartbroken at the photograph of Emmett Till in his open casket, mutilated beyond recognition, at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina.
She was also frustrated the Anniston marker wasn’t at the location of the bombing. “It was a mile outside of town,” she said. “It reminded me that African American narratives aren’t only often untold, but intentionally misconstrued.”
But all were grateful and awed by those who sacrificed so the next generation could have a better life. And all agreed that it was more powerful experiencing this history in person than reading it in a book.
“The riders had more courage than I could ever imagine,” said Lynch. “It reminded me that hope is all we have. Now I feel empowered to speak up when someone says or does something that perpetuates racism.”
Several students sought campus leadership roles after last year’s trip, including Ford, now UMW’s student government association president. Like Lynch and Morshed, he’s eager to share what he learned with his fellow Eagles and continue to make UMW more inclusive and welcoming.
“I want to ensure that all students, including people of color, have their voice accurately heard here at Mary Washington,” he said.
JFMC Director Marion Sanford hopes UMW students felt inspired by the “courage, conviction and character” of the Freedom Riders, many of whom also were in college. They got on the bus knowing threats, violence and perhaps even death were awaiting them, she said, and still refused to back down.
“Even at this age, you can play an active role in advocating for social justice,” Sanford said. “We want to give students tools and strategies to be agents of change – just like Dr. Farmer and the Freedom Riders – and trailblazers in their own right.”
View the agenda for a complete list of stops on the UMW group’s Freedom Rides Tour.
For the University of Mary Washington, 2020 will be a particularly significant year. January 12, 2020, will mark the centennial birthday of civil rights pioneer and Mary Washington history professor Dr. James L. Farmer Jr. We will also celebrate several institutional milestones, including the thirtieth anniversary of the James Farmer Multicultural Center and the tenth anniversary of UMW’s Women’s and Gender Studies program. In commemoration, UMW has launched more than a year of reflection and drive for action called Farmer Legacy 2020: A Centennial Celebration and Commitment to Action. The Fall Break Freedom Rides Trip served as a prelude. In recognition of Dr. Farmer’s activism and determination to, in his own words, “do something about” injustice, Farmer Legacy 2020 will encourage our community to take action in support of inclusive excellence. We will ask: What would Farmer fight for today?
Plan to visit the Farmer Legacy 2020 website throughout this year of commemoration to share and learn about our community in action.