Students from Renaissance Charter High School and four other local high schools recently returned from a journey which followed the path of the Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, a group of hundreds of college students and others who challenged segregation by traveling in integrated groups on inter-state buses through the deep South. The trip gave the fifty high school students and faculty who went a chance to meet individuals who fought social injustice as young people during the civil rights movement and to learn more about why and how people close to their age decided to take action.
Renaissance Charter social worker and UFT member Alison Rosow was one of the key organizers of the trip. She said her involvement actually began in the months after Katrina hit New Orleans, when she and a co-worker “were stunned” by the devastation and began looking for ways to help rebuild the city and address the deep-rooted racial inequalities which affected its residents. With cooperation from Renaissance Principal Stacey Gauthier, they were able to bring several dozen students down to New Orleans to help fix up homes and schools damaged by the storm and tutor students in local schools in 2007 and 2009.
When parents began asking what trip they’d be taking this year, Rosow discovered that a former colleague had organized a bus trip in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, and worked with students, faculty, and parents at Renaissance Charter to fund-raise almost the full $8000 required for eight students and two staff members to participate (though they’re still accepting donations to cover the last few hundred dollars of the trip’s cost). Students were recruited through flyers distributed throughout the entire high school, and each student who wanted to go was required to write an essay explaining how the trip would help them contribute to improving their community.
The students’ journey attracted both local and national attention, including stories by the BBC and NY1, which covered the trip with a six-part series (check out the Renaissance Charter High School website for full links to the coverage). It also included visits to the Lincoln Memorial, to the former home of Medger Evers on the day of its dedication as a civil rights museum, and to the site of the well-known sit-ins by students at a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960 — an experience which led the high school students to reflect on whether they’d have made the same decision to resist segregation through non-violent protest. As one Renaissance student told NY1, “I would feel really scared, but then I’d know that I’d be doing something to help change the laws and hopefully change people’s perspectives on race in America.”
The students had read Raymond Arsenault’s book The Freedom Riders before leaving, she noted, and treated the Riders themselves “like celebrities — they would go up and ask them to sign their book.” “The best part was when the kids actually got a chance to interact and brainstorm with the Freedom Riders,” she explains. The students talked with the movement veterans “about how to start a movement, and what to do, and what the students’ issues are today — I think they all got a lot out of it.”
Rosow says that the trip had a powerful impact on all who went. Now that they’ve returned, the students are planning to make a presentation to the entire school to talk about what they experienced. “I think they all made a commitment to make changes,” she concludes, especially in terms of working to improve racial inequalities in education.