Freedom Riders remembered in Cross Cultural Center

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Walking through the Busch Student Center from Nov. 7 through Nov. 11, students, faculty and staff noticed something completely different on the second floor. The Cross Cultural Center was covered with black curtains, leaving the usually bright room obscured from passers-by.

The CCC presented an exhibit on the Freedom Riders movement, displaying the history of the crusade from the spring and summer of 1961. The movement involved more than 400 people who wanted to challenge the segregation of interstate travel in the southern United States.

“Educational events like this exhibit are so important to the Saint Louis University community because not only does it celebrate the accomplishments of the Freedom Riders in their struggle for justice, but it also provides an opportunity for students to learn about things that are unfortunately still sometimes left out of our history books,” Kathleen Otto, a student worker in the CCC, said.

Patrice French, program coordinator for the CCC, created this exhibit with the help of staff in her department. She said she chose this exhibit because it is the 50th anniversary of the rides, and it is one of the less well-known parts of the civil rights movement.

“We want the SLU community to critically reflect on issues impacting our society and also realize that social change movements are started by individuals and small groups, not by a mass of people,” French said. “Although the Freedom Riders took place in 1961, I feel the act parallels social issues that our country is currently struggling with, such as economics and education.”

There has been a significant response to the CCC’s exhibit. More than 700 people walked through during the five days the display was featured. French said she was glad that the exhibit was well received by students and staff.

“I think people were dually impressed by how the CCC lounge space was transformed, and also by the act itself, since it’s not as well known,” she said. “I’m just happy that the CCC had the opportunity to engage the SLU community in this way, and hope individuals who viewed the exhibit continue the conversations.”

Another program coordinator for the CCC, Andre Benson, said he saw positive reactions from his staff.

“Almost all of the staff thought that this exhibit was very powerful,” Benson said. “They were glad to have a visually striking exhibit on campus that could teach so much.”

Benson said students told him that while Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., were covered in high school, their curriculums glossed over the history of these cross-country travelers. The exhibit offered additional context to these prominent figures of the civil rights movement.

French said that Freedom Riders can still inspire today’s social justice advocates.

“I also want others to see the power that young people have in making change,” French said.  “The Freedom Riders personify passion, dedication, and perseverance.”

According to French, this movement was not small to the Riders who were actively attempting to change the way society functioned in the South.

“Many of the Riders signed their last will and testament, and were ready to die for this cause because they felt it was more important than their individual selves,” French said. “Many of the college students involved sacrificed final exams, and some were even expelled when the school discovered that they were arrested. That sacrifice is powerful.”

French even compared the Freedom Riders to the Society of Jesus as a group focused on their goal.

“I can think of the Jesuits, who were started by a small group of men who were committed to live and serve the world using their faith,” French said. “They were dedicated to social justice and endured set-backs and criticism because of it. But that didn’t stop them.”