Wilmington College revisits the Freedom Rides
By Sarah Sidlow
Photo: Freedom Riders, a traveling exhibit developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, will be on display in the Quaker Heritage Center of Wilmington College beginning March 19; photo: Corbis
In 1961, civil rights workers, called Freedom Riders, rode interstate buses into the South in mixed racial groups to challenge the local laws that enforced segregation. Their actions provoked violent reactions in the Jim Crow South, exposed the local disregard for federal law and called national attention to the credibility and force of the American Civil Rights Movement.
To commemorate the courage of these small integrated groups, Wilmington College’s Quaker Heritage Center is hosting two side-by-side Civil Rights Movement exhibits: Freedom Riders, a traveling exhibition developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History; and The Long March, produced by the Herb Block Foundation.
“Freedom Riders is divided into six chronological sections describing the context of the Civil Rights Movement in the early Kennedy years,” Ruth Brindle, curator of the Quaker Heritage Center explained, “through the events of the summer of 1961, and their legacy: federal civil rights legislation and a model for grassroots movements to bring about change in the United States.”
The Long March presents the political cartoons of artist Herbert Block – better known as “Herblock,” – who used his seven-decade career to illustrate and bring social issues like this one to the forefront of America’s conscience. The cartoons featured in The Long March are those most relevant to discussions of the Civil Rights Movement, but Block, a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, also illustrated other events and social concerns in America – he caricatured 13 U.S. presidents, from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush; chronicled American history from the 1929 Stock Market crash to 2001; illustrated cartoons about Watergate – which contributed to the resignation of President Richard Nixon – and even coined the term “McCarthyism.”
“His cartoons show us who we were as Americans, as well as the lessons to be learned from the Civil Rights Movement,” Brindle said. “Looking at Herblock’s political cartoons over seven decades, we realize he was one of those people that fought long and hard to make us a better people. Herblock’s cartoons continue to resonate and will speak to us about these crucial events in our history for many generations to come.”
The pair of exhibits will be augmented with a five-minute documentary on the Freedom Riders, called “The Sit-In Story,” a 1961 recording narrative by Edwin Randall; “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s keynote address delivered to the AME Church Convention in Cincinnati in 1964; and the photographs and first-person stories of Wilmington College alumni, faculty and staff about their experiences during one of America’s most turbulent eras.
The message of the Civil Rights Movement is an important one across the nation. Likewise, Wilmington College is pleased to provide this dialogue to its students and visitors as a representation of its mission.
“As an institution with Quaker roots, Wilmington College is dedicated to issues of peace and social justice,” Brindle said. “The idea one person can make a difference is crucial in today’s world – you don’t have to be in a position of influence … to stand up for what you believe in, for the rights of others, for a vision of a better world. This is an idea we try to convey to our students every day – through courses, extra-curricular activities, service opportunities, lobbying efforts and exhibits like this. It is not just an idea that is important for our students, but for all of us – no matter our age or our position in the community or our stage of life. The Quaker idea of ‘speaking truth to power’ is ageless and timeless and vitally important.”
As this summer marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Movement has again become prominent in the national conversation. Brindle sees it as a good reminder about what America can learn from its not-so-distant past.
“In an era and a culture that is so focused on the here-and-now, on the immediate, it often takes some sort of major anniversary like this to make us all slow down and pay attention to what happened in the past,” Brindle said. “This is the perfect opportunity for us to look back at the events of the Civil Rights Movement, but more importantly, to then look forward at what we can learn from those events to create and shape our future.”
It’s a lesson that applies to us all.
“The Civil Rights Movement was about everyday people working together to make change, standing up for themselves and for others, changing American culture in ways that for generations seemed impossible,” Brindle said. “The hope embedded in the movement, the perseverance in the face of hostility and anger and hate, the belief in the power of nonviolence – these are ideas that we all need to carry forward with us as we work for change today and in the future.”
Wilmington College presents Freedom Riders from Wednesday, March 19 through Wednesday, April 16, and The Long March from Wednesday, March 19 through Friday, May 2 in the Quaker Heritage Center, 1870 Quaker Way in Wilmington. The opening for both exhibits is at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 20.
Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.