Five Freedom Riders spoke about their experiences fighting for civil rights and encouraged AU students to continue creating social change at a panel discussion about the civil rights movement in the East Quad Building Sept. 28.
The Freedom Riders were a group of people, both black and white, who rode buses from D.C. to the South to protest segregation laws.
Backlash against the Riders turned violent at times. One mob in Alabama lit a Freedom Rider bus on fire in an attempt to keep the Riders trapped inside, according to an article published by National Public Radio.
At the panel, the civil rights activists told their stories about fighting for African-Americans’ rights on the 1960s Freedom Rides and discussed contemporary issues facing the African-American community.
The event, hosted by AU College Democrats, included panelists the Rev. Perry Smith, Joan Mulholland, Abdul Khaalis, Dion Diamond and John Moody. Professor Gregg Ivers, who teaches courses in civil rights and liberties in the AU Department of Government, moderated the conversation.
Smith started out explaining his first encounter with segregation in Mississippi, where he was turned away from voter registration because he is black.
Diamond, Khaalis and Moody were some of the first members of the Nonviolent Action Group. Started at Howard University, NAG’s members addressed contemporary discrimination issues by participating in local sit-ins and protests, according to the Civil Rights Movement Veteran’s website.
Mulholland began doing sit-ins in North Carolina while she was a student at Duke University, she said. After she dropped out of college, she moved to Washington, D.C., and became involved in NAG,according to an interview in “The Children Shall Lead,” a documentary about the Freedom Rides.
Members of the panel were asked what motivated them to go on the Rides.
Khaalis told a story about when he was at a camp as a child in New Jersey. A copperhead snake bit one of the African-American campers, but the camper was refused treatment at a nearby hospital because he was black. He had to be driven to New York to receive medical care, Khaalis said. The boy was fine and later returned to camp.
Other panel members told stories of the hate and violence they experienced while protesting.
Diamond talked about a time where a child spat on him while he was doing a sit-in with hopes of provoking a reaction in front of the press.
“If you slap me while I’m doing a sit-in — guess what — you get away with it,” Diamond said.
Smith discussed politics and the black community today, and said he’s skeptical that the election of President Barack Obama will end racism in America.
“I don’t think that anything about the election of Obama suggested to me that we moved to a post-racial America,” Smith said in an interview with The Eagle.
Smith said that, while progress in civil rights has been made, there is a lot to left to be done.
“Many whites and blacks think we’ve arrived,” Diamond said. “We’re a long way from equality in this country.”
Smith said the biggest issue facing the black community today is the economy, which takes an especially large toll on African-American youth.
The members of the panel had strong opinions on what young people, especially college students, can do to create social change.
“Register to vote,” Smith told the audience. “Many people died so you have that right.”
Mulholland advised students to use social media to seek others with similar causes when looking to create change.
“There are so many things to stand up for,” Khaalis said.
He also noted that, in the future, he would like to see people fight for those in poverty.
“The future is yours and if you don’t carry the mantle to make the society what you wish it to be, we’re lost,” Diamond said.