Freedom Riders recreate historical civil rights journeys of 50 years ago

Photo by Bill Eppridge//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Fifty years ago, a brave young group set off from D.C. in a series of buses headed to the South, determined to end segregation.

Their actions helped change the course of history.

And today some of those same brave people recreated the Freedom Rides for a younger generation.

From across the country, 40 select college students boarded a bus Sunday in downtown D.C. with several older travel companions to retrace the steps of a remarkable movement that changed history.

"It's more than an extraordinary feeling," said Bob Singleton, a Freedom Rider. "It's a dream come true."

Nearly 50 years ago to the day, black and white activists known as Freedom Riders dared to desegrate interstate bus travel.

"I definitely would not be here were it not for the sacrifices of the Freedom Riders," said Tania Smith, an American University student. "And I owe a lot to them."

And at the front of this bus were original Freedom Riders like Dion Diamond from the District, Bob and Helen Singleton from California, and Joan Mulholland of Arlington.

"I felt like a soldier going into foreign country, into enemy territory," Helen Singleton said.

"It's good to know that we were able to make a difference," Mulholland said.

Mulholland, Diamond, and the Singletons were all arrested and imprisoned in Mississippi for challenging racist "Jim Crow" policies.

Freedom Riders were beaten in Birmingham and nearly burned alive in Anniston.

But their tenacity prevailed. And thanks to them and thousands of others, civil rights laws were eventually enacted.

In 1961 Freedom Riders were greeted by armed guards, paddy wagons and fists.

In 2011, at stop one, the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, they were welcomed as heroes.

The hope from here is to motivate a new generation to continue the fight for social justice.

The deeper into the South they go, the more lessons the college students can expect to learn.

"By the time they get to Montgomery I want them to know what it was like," Rip Patton said.

The PBS-sponsored 2011 Student Freedom Ride ends May 16 in New Orleans.