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Reflecting on the Courage and Clear Purpose of the Freedom Riders, 60 Years Later

By Valerie Jarrett, President, The Obama Foundation

This month marks 60 years since the original 13 Freedom Riders—among them, a 21-year-old John Lewis—set out on two buses from Washington, D.C. to challenge the segregation of public transportation. In the weeks following their May 4, 1961 departure, the Freedom Riders were threatened, arrested, and attacked by violent mobs throughout the Deep South. They attracted the attention of the nation and the world, inspiring hundreds more riders from across the country to join their movement in Mississippi that summer.

To mark this anniversary, the Foundation spoke with veterans of the Freedom Rides, as well as Eric Etheridge, the author of Breach of Peace, a photo-history of the movement. I hope you’ll listen to their stories.

When we look back today, it’s obvious that the Freedom Riders achieved many of their immediate aims. As a direct result of their efforts, the Kennedy administration petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to end the segregation of public transportation facilities.

But more than any one set of laws or regulations, the Freedom Riders sent a message to the world that continues to echo decades later: that ordinary people from disparate backgrounds could come together and narrow the gap between our country’s stated ideals and lived reality. Their story inspired so many activists, organizers, and leaders to take their first civic action, both during the Civil Rights movement and in the years that followed. 

It also stands as an inspiration for the story we’ll tell at the Obama Presidential Center. In one of his most important speeches as a candidate for President, then-Senator Obama said, “I will never forget that the only reason that I’m standing here today is because somebody, somewhere stood up for me when it was risky. Stood up when it was hard. Stood up when it wasn’t popular. And because that somebody stood up, a few more stood up. And then a few thousand stood up. And then a few million stood up. And standing up, with courage and clear purpose, they somehow managed to change the world.”

During my eight years working for President Obama in the White House, it was impossible to forget that our presence in that building was only possible because of people like the Freedom Riders. 

As President, he honored those Riders and other movement leaders by establishing a Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Alabama. At the Obama Foundation, we continue that legacy by honoring those on whose shoulders we stand. As we revealed this spring, the exterior text of the Museum at the Obama Presidential Center will feature a quote from President Obama’s speech at the 50th Anniversary of Selma.

Inside the Center, visitors will learn about more than just the Obama presidency. They’ll also hear about all that has been made possible by those who were willing to order at a lunch counter, organize their work place, ride on a bus, register for classes, or reach for the ballot in the face of massive resistance from state and local officials. Visitors will leave inspired to create change in their own communities. 

As we honor the Freedom Riders’ courage and clear purpose 60 years ago, take a few minutes to listen to their stories.

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