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Smithsonian Commemorates 50th Anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Rides

February 8, 2011

The Smithsonian Institution, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities, will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Rides with a series of public programs across the country Feb. 9 to examine the history and legacy of the rides.

The first Freedom Ride left Washington, D.C., May 4, 1961. During the spring and summer of that year, more than 400 men and women became Freedom Riders. Riding together in interracial groups on buses and trains, they put their bodies and freedom on the line by challenging Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in interstate travel. While Southern officials chose to ignore two Supreme Court rulings that struck down racial segregation on interstate buses and trains and in the terminal waiting rooms, restaurants and restrooms used by interstate travelers, the Freedom Riders were determined to exercise their constitutional right to sit and eat where they pleased. 

“Riders endured beatings, bombings, harassment and imprisonment for doing something the Supreme Court had said they had a right to do,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Their bravery and commitment to nonviolence demonstrated the power of ordinary citizens to change the nation and inspired future actions.”

National Youth Summit

Middle and high school students across the country will join together electronically for a National Youth Summit on the Freedom Rides and activism that will originate from Washington, D.C., with Freedom Ride veterans, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Diane Nash, Jim Zwerg and the Rev. James Lawson.

The Feb. 9 discussion in Washington, D.C., taking place in the National Museum of American History’s Carmichael Auditorium, will be joined by audiences at five Smithsonian Affiliate museums that will also host regional town halls, as well as by registered viewers of the webcast. These Youth Town Halls will take place at:

  • The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham, Ala.

  • The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati

  • Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh

  • Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles

  • Arab American National Museum, Dearborn, Mich.

The live webcast is available to educators and students through free registration at and will include filmmaker Stanley Nelson, director of Freedom Riders, an American Experience/WGBH film, and scholar Raymond Arsenault to discuss the meaning of the rides and the role of young people in shaping America’s past and future.

Freedom Rides Film Screening and Discussion

A screening of Freedom Riders followed by a panel discussion will begin Feb. 9 at 6 p.m. at the National Museum of American History. Freedom Ride veterans, Nelson and Arsenault will participate in the panel. Freedom Riders, the first feature-length documentary to tell the story of these courageous activists who risked death by daring to defy the laws of Jim Crow in the South, is scheduled to air on PBS’ American Experience series in May. Seating for the screening is limited and is on a first-come, first-served basis.

Events marking the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides are produced by the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Endowment for the Humanities, in partnership with Smithsonian Affiliations and American Experience/WGBH. Additional support is provided by Booz Allen Hamilton.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. To learn more about the museum, check For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).

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Melinda Machado
(202) 633-3129

Lisa Birkbeck
(202) 633-3129

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