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News and Media

Oberlin Student Retraces Journey of 1961 Freedom Ride

May. 05, 2011

by Marsha Lynn Bragg

Sarah Chesire '14
photo: Jennifer Manna

A popular adage states that a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. For Sarah Cheshire, that journey will begin on a chartered bus.

Beginning May 6, Cheshire, a first-year Oberlin student, and 39 other students from colleges and universities across the country will take a 10-day trip through the South retracing a five-month trip in 1961 known as the Freedom Ride.

But rather than seek to dismantle the laws that allowed segregated interstate transportation facilities and practices, Cheshire hopes, in part, to make sense of what she describes as her conflicted personal history. The North Carolina native grew up in a community still romanticizing the old South and holding firm to some of the prejudicial remnants of that era. As she comes to terms with her past, she wants to build a future for her that is less racially and politically polarized than the environment in which she grew up.

Cheshire believes it’s her civic duty. "I believe we are all responsible for our histories," she says. "Like the original Freedom Riders, I am courageous enough to confront these issues head on, despite how close they are to home to me. "

The Student Freedom Ride coincides with the 50th anniversary of the original Freedom Ride, organized by 22-year-old Howard University graduate James Farmer Jr., who had recently cofounded the Congress of Racial Equality. The Chicago native used the principles of nonviolent resistance to organize what became known as the Freedom Ride, an effort to end segregated interstate travel throughout the South.

After training in Washington, D.C., seven blacks and six whites left on two buses. Along the way, one of the buses was bombed, mobs of angry whites beat the riders, and as more diverse riders joined the cause, about 300 were jailed. The effort ended before reaching the final destination in Louisiana. Eventually, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued a ruling enforcing the desegregation of interstate travel.

While it is unlikely that the 2011 bus ride will be met with mob violence, Cheshire hopes it will spark complex dialog particularly between the generations of riders. In addition to the students, the trip will include volunteer participants and many of the 439 original riders, including Rev. James Lawson Jr. '58, a student in Oberlin's Graduate School of Theology, who will attend separate anniversary celebrations. Organizers want the students, who come from 33 states and D.C., as well as China, Haiti, Kuwait, and Tajikistan, to explore what civic engagement means and looks like today, what has changed since 1961, and the role of social media in activism.

The modern-day social activists will also leave from D.C. After two days of activities, they will board a bus bound for Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The ride will conclude in New Orleans, the intended destination of the original riders.

Cheshire, a Bonner Scholar and a volunteer rape crisis advocate, is considering majoring in gender, sexuality, and feminist studies and creative writing. She learned about the Student Freedom Ride from Bonner Scholars Program interim director Julia Nieves. The Bonner Program provides scholarships to students with a demonstrated commitment to service and activism.

Nieves says she believed the trip a unique opportunity for Cheshire and a good fit. "I really appreciate Sarah's thoughtful approach to talking about tough issues," says Nieves about why she nominated her. "She has a genuine, genuine enthusiasm for talking about difficult and broad issues and trying to apply them to her life. This is an opportunity for her to be a part of something really amazing."

“I remember learning about the civil rights movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other protest marches while in school," Cheshire says. "Most times the focus is on the leaders of the movement, but I was struck by the number of people involved in the Freedom Ride and the level of commitment from ordinary people who felt a strong sense of responsibility and wanted to get involved. They were very courageous.”

Interested students had to write an essay explaining why they wanted a seat on the bus. “I wrote about my unique perspective and how I’ve grappled with my history and my position of privilege,” she says.

Cheshire learned by e-mail in February that of 1,000 submissions, she would be one of the students to participate in the all-expenses paid trip compliments of the PBS television history series American Experience. PBS will air Freedom Riders, a documentary by filmmaker Stanley Nelson about the original riders, on May 16.

While on the trip, Cheshire explains, student riders are required to take photographs and to tweet and post at least two blog entries to chronicle their experiences, reactions, and observations. Organizers are incorporating social media tools to encourage interaction and offer real-time accounts of the trip.

“I haven’t thought too much about what my goals are,” she says, “ but my interest is with people whose life experiences are different than my own. I want to have complex conversations, which may be painful [for some]. But I want them to be honest and not be politically correct; I want honest, forward dialog.”

The honesty she seeks may counter some of the racist messages and experiences she’s had to navigate while growing up just outside of Durham.

A middle school family-history project enabled her to trace her family to the 1600s, where she learned of her family’s preeminence and legacy. This information served as the basis for her essay and sparked her desire to make this historic journey.

Cheshire discovered that her family owned slaves and several cotton plantations. One particular plantation just beyond the city limits of Raleigh, North Carolina, features an elegant white manor house and its subsidiary slave quarters, she says. The property has been part of her family since the 1700s. She describes the “collective nostalgia” that still lingers within her family, from debutante balls and faded confederate flags that hang on mantles to derogatory racial expressions used in casual conversations. So compelling the history that her uncle Godfrey Cheshire, in 2008, produced a historical documentary, Moving Midway, about their famous homestead.

“It would be easy for me to speak vehemently against racism if I wasn’t so familiar with the faces responsible for perpetuating it,” she says. "I first had to recognize myself as part of the heritage, and not feel ashamed,” she says. It’s taken her years of thinking about and engaging in local politics to be able to claim a voice inside of the place she calls home.

Cheshire says she's determined to put her past in perspective and believes her role in the Student Freedom Ride is an important step in the ongoing process of acceptance and reconciliation.

“I believe I can have southern heritage without all the politics that stem from it. I can be a North Carolina debutante like my grandmother wants and still be an activist."


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