Visitors to Cowles Library have a chance to check out a large exhibit in the Reading Room, and the adjacent Collier Heritage Room detailing the civil rights campaign known as the Freedom Riders.
In May 1961, federal law required interstate bus services to cease segregating buses and waiting rooms by race, as it had been done for many years prior. Many Southern states, including North and South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi ignored these federal mandates and continued segregating. In response, a diverse group called the Freedom Riders set out to engage in civil disobedience and make a statement about the treatment of black Americans by the states.
In the four months following the first Freedom Ride, over 400 people around the country joined the original protestors in what became a nationally famous movement and had lasting ramifications that, not only changed opinions and challenged existing prejudice, but also impacted the political scene in a way not often seen in history.
Claudia Frazer, associate professor of librarianship at Cowles Library, has organized two exhibits in the past from the same group that provided the Freedom Riders exhibit, the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, and was notified over a year ago that a new exhibit was on its way around the country. Frazer also organized the various speaking events that will take place while the exhibit is at Cowles, including acclaimed documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, journalist Eric Etheridge and Drake alumna Patti Miller.
“He was an absolutely dynamic speaker,” said Frazer of Nelson, whom she saw speak at a conference promoting his documentary film “Freedom Riders” detailing the hazardous civil rights campaign.
“Freedom Riders” was featured on PBS’ program “American Experience” when it premiered in May 2011. Nelson will speak on Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. in the Reading Room.
Etheridge found inspiration in the faces of the Freedom Riders’ mug shots and later compiled many of them, along with present-day portraits and intriguing interviews, into his book “Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders.” Etheridge will speak on Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. in the Reading Room.
Miller, a 1965 graduate of Drake’s College of Fine Arts, participated in what has become known as Freedom Summer, an organized effort in the summer of 1964 to help southern blacks register to vote. Miller also wrote an inspiring letter to the Iowa delegates of the Democratic National Convention that August, urging them to use their votes wisely. She will speak on Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. in the Reading Room.
Senior politics major Ryan Price was presented with the opportunity in the summer of 2011 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the movement by participating in bus rides paralleling those of 1961.
“It was easily the biggest honor of my life,” Price said. “Everyone should check out the exhibit, I guarantee they will learn something new.”
Upon visiting the display first-year Veronica Jandura said, “The exhibit really opened my eyes to the Freedom Riders and their importance to the civil rights movement. They were really the beginning of a long quest for equality for all Americans.”
The exhibit is open to the public and will run until Sept. 11 to Oct. 9. For more information, visit researchguides.drake.edu/freedomriders.