On Monday 600 members of the UMW community and distinguished guests gathered in front of a 1960s-era Greyhound Bus on Ball Circle to celebrate the unveiling of the Freedom Rides Exhibit which will remain there until March 31.
The Freedom Riders were a group of college students led by James Farmer that boarded buses bound for the Deep South beginning in May 1961 with the intent to challenge discriminatory waiting rooms, bus terminals and restaurants.
During the trip, the riders were attacked, beaten and jailed.
Freedom Riders Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and Rev. Reginald Green were present for the unveiling.
In her brief address, Mullholland examined the historical progress that has resulted during the past 50 years.
“The man who is now in the White House was born in the year of the Freedom Rides,” she said. “That is a sign of the social change that has happened.”
She also connected the current turmoil and unrest in Egypt to her own personal experience during the rides.
“We’ve come too far to turn back now,” he said.
The windows of the bus are filled with photographs of the Freedom Riders on their journey and its destination of Birmingham is plastered above the windshield. In addition to the bus, the exhibit is made up of a timeline and life-sized photographs of James Farmer, a Freedom Rider, National Guardsman and former UMW professor.
The quote next to Farmer’s cutout reads, “We felt we could count upon the racists of the South to create a crisis, so that the federal government would be compelled to enforce federal law.”
Visitors to the exhibit are also able to hear songs sung by the Freedom Riders. There is also a stand where visitors are also able to put their mark on the exhibit by writing what they would get on the bus for.
“The exhibit reminds me of the all the people before me that fought so hard for equality,” senior Travis May said. “It makes me realize how truly blessed I am to be at Mary Washington, because I know if it was not for every committed fighter for justice, I would not be attending a prestigious university such as this one.”
The bus and exhibit arrived on campus early Friday morning. It was preceded by a fury of anticipation and questioning by the student body. The James Farmer Multicultural Center, along with students in two communications classes, championed efforts to promote the event.
Students and faculty wore shirts bearing the questions “Would You?” “Could You?” and “Will You?” Last week and this Monday, the center hung posters and banners with the same questions throughout campus. They also created an event page on Facebook for the unveiling with the title “LIKE THIS EVENT.”
Despite the uncertainty, campus walk in front of Ball Circle and Lee Hall’s terrace were filled with a crowd of people.
Charles Reed, Jr., a senior and student aide for the James Farmer Multicultural Center, was asked to speak at the unveiling. He connected the three questions in the final remarks of his speech.
“All last week including today, we asked ‘would you?’, ‘could you?’, and ‘will you?’” Reed said. “The fact that you are out here today shows that ‘yes, you would,’ ‘yes, you could,’ and ‘yes, you will!’”
“I was honored to speak at the unveiling,” Reed said. “It is a moment in my life that I will never forget. I know that if James Farmer were alive today, he would be smiling away knowing that his work and the work of the Freedom Riders was not in vain. I feel that the exhibit is a great way for UMW to celebrate the legacy of the Freedom Rides and James Farmer. It says that UMW is a university not only committed to keeping alive James Farmer’s namesake, but to diversity and inclusion as well.”
Last week, Leah Cox, special assistant to the president for diversity & inclusion and director of the James Farmer Scholars and Student Transition Program, said she was very excited for the unveiling.
“I was pleasantly surprised at the turnout,” she said. “It was just wonderful to see the numbers of students, faculty, staff, administrators and the community who came to the unveiling. It was better than I ever anticipated. I was really proud.”
Planning for the event began two years ago when Courtney Chapman, director of multicultural student affairs, realized the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides was only two years away. It was her idea to bring an old Greyhound bus to campus.
“The bus is my baby,” she said, referencing her favorite part of the exhibit.
Following the unveiling, journalist Eric Etheridge lectured Monday evening about his book “Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Freedom Riders.”
Other campus events relating to the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides will include a lecture and visit by Andy Lewis on March 30, the premier of the PBS film “Freedom Riders” also on March 30, and a panel discussion and Great Lives lecture on the Freedom Riders on March 31.
In addition, this year’s commencement address will be given by Rep. John Lewis, a freedom rider, civil rights colleague of James Farmer and cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Finally, students from across the country participating in the PBS “American Experience” bus route will make their first stop at UMW on May 8.