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IU South Bend students, faculty retrace steps of Freedom Riders

Fifty years ago, young people known as Freedom Riders traveled through the South on buses, challenging Jim Crow segregation in the face of enormous personal risk. Threatened, beaten by mobs and jailed, they inspired idealists across the nation and sparked social movements that transformed society.

This summer, students and faculty members from Indiana University South Bend retraced the routes followed by the Freedom Riders and joined members of the original group for celebrations and reunions. Taking part in the campus's "Freedom Summer" course, the students immersed themselves in the history of the civil rights movement during a two-week tour of its most important sites.

IUSB Freedom Summer

Students and faculty from IU South Bend posed for a group photo at the Nashville, Tenn., Public Library, near the start of their "Freedom Summer" tour.

Print-Quality Photo

Monica Maria Tetzlaff, an associate professor of history at IU South Bend who teaches the class and led the tour, said the experience attracts a mix of students -- blacks, Latinos and non-Hispanic whites -- who share an interest in social justice.

"The one motivating factor is, they all know the historical significance of the civil rights movement and the enormous changes that happened in the '60s era," she said. "They're interested in having a chance to meet some of the people that made those changes happen. And they want to make a positive difference themselves."

Longtime IU South Bend history professor Lester Lamon created the Freedom Summer course in 2000, drawing on the impact of the Freedom Summer movement of 1964, when thousands of college students traveled throughout the South to help register black voters. Tetzlaff started teaching the three-credit class in 2004. Students read books and articles and watch videos about the movement, prepare and give presentations, and keep journals of their experiences on the two-week tour.

This year, the itinerary was adjusted to take advantage of Freedom Ride celebrations. Highlights included meeting with Freedom Riders and other civil-rights veterans and attending an anniversary speech in Montgomery, Ala., by John Lewis, a leader of the Freedom Riders who has been a congressman from Georgia since 1987.

The group went first to Nashville, Tenn., where they were briefed by Vanderbilt University professors who are studying the civil rights movement; met with John Siegenthaler, who was Attorney General Robert Kennedy's assistant assigned to the Freedom Rides; and watched the acclaimed PBS American Experience documentary on the Freedom Riders at their hotel rooms.

From Nashville the group traveled to Alabama, visiting sites where Freedom Riders were attacked by mobs in Birmingham, Ala., and Montgomery and where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed 1,000 civil-rights supporters in Montgomery's sweltering First Baptist Church while threatening crowds formed outside. Freedom Rider Catherine Burks-Brooks led group members on a tour of Birmingham locales, and the students also traveled to Selma, Ala., scene of violent clashes over voting rights in the mid-1960s.

They were in Jackson, Miss., for a reunion that brought hundreds of Freedom Riders back to the state where they had been arrested and sent to the infamous Parchman state prison 50 years earlier for defying the state's ban on integrated travel on interstate bus lines. And they stopped in Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta region, where they met with civil-rights leader Charles McLaurin and witnessed the unveiling of a historical marker honoring the legendary activist Fannie Lou Hamer.

The tour ended in Memphis, Tenn., with a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

Kevin James, an assistant professor of sociology at IU South Bend who accompanied Tetzlaff and the students on the trip, said it was a life-changing experience to be in the presence of the people and the locations that made civil-rights history.

"You stand in those places and you think, wow -- I felt every possible emotion," he said. "It was also magical because it was the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides."

Tetzlaff, a historian of the Reconstruction Era, said the Freedom Summer course proves inspirational both for teachers and students. After taking over the class, she began conducting research on the civil rights movement, particularly in South Bend in the mid-20th century.

She said students often return with a new commitment to work for the community and engage with public issues. Many get involved with the Civil Rights Heritage Center in South Bend, which was established by students who took part in the first Freedom Summer course in 2000.

"It's transformative for students," she said of the experience. "They write in their journals how this trip changes their lives. They have a new perception of history."