Freedom riders retrace daring route to Civil Rights Act

Fifty years ago, one of the most important moments in civil rights history began on the streets of D.C. with the daring and historic freedom rides in protest of segregation.

Mayor Vincent Gray honored three freedom riders for their courage Wednesday.

More than 400 civil rights activists boarded buses in 1961 to challenge segregation policies that plagued interstate travel.

Abdul Aziz and Joan Mulholland were among them. They haven't seen each other in half a century “We didn't know that we were history making. We didn't know, as we do today, that we pushed it. We truly pushed it,” said freedom rider Dion Diamond.

This non-violent campaign met with iron resistance in the deep South: beatings in Birmingham, riots in Montgomery and a bus set ablaze in Anniston.

"Even though we knew it was dangerous, this was more than we could imagined, to try to burn people alive on Mother's Day," said Mulholland.

Mulholland, now retired in Arlington, was arrested in Jackson, Miss., along with then-Howard University students Diamond and Aziz. They were imprisoned for months.

“I was shaken to the core because death was only a breath away. That's how close they were to killing us,” said Aziz.

Their endurance was part of the events that pushed the federal government to end Jim Crow laws on public transportation. The freedom rides, in concert with sit-ins and marches, led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, monumental moments in U.S. history.

Diamond, along with other freedom riders, will soon share their trip through history with 40 select college students, including University of Mary Washington's Charles Reed.

“When you certainly think of the freedom rides, it is a legacy that will endure for years to come,” Reed said.

Sunday they'll hop on a bus and retrace the courageous steps of a haunting past that forever changed a nation. The PBS-sponsored 2011 student freedom ride ends May 16th in New Orleans, La.