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IU Northwest honors MLK’s legacy with Freedom Riders program

Campus, community, high school students enjoy an opportunity to learn about important turning point in the Civil Rights Movement


Media Contact

Erika Rose
Office of Marketing and Communications

In celebration of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in January, Indiana University Northwest paid tribute to the men and women who risked their lives to confront racial inequality in the American South in the 1960s with a public screening of the award-winning documentary, “Freedom Riders.”

The acclaimed film from Firelight Media, director Stanley Nelson and producer Laurens Grant, chronicles the struggles of the young people, black and white, who boarded buses and traveled to Southern towns to openly defy segregation laws.

The threats, physical violence and imprisonment they suffered at the hands of Southern citizens and authorities only strengthened the Riders’ resolve to confront the injustice of segregation through non-violent activism. Their courageous action awoke the nation to the evils of a harshly unequal social system.

More than 500 high school students viewed the film, along with a dramatic stage performance summarizing important events and people of the Civil Rights Movement. The live performance by Mas Media Seven was brought to stage by 1992 IU Northwest alum Mark Spencer, founder and creative director of the West Side Theatre Guild.

The performers brought history to life as the actors illustrated scenes of segregation and portrayed important figures such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. The performance creatively educated the students about important moments in history, such as the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which resulted in desegregation; literacy and poll taxes, which made it virtually impossible for African-American citizens to vote; Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad; the Ku Klux Klan; and much more.

While the actors’ powerful first-person portrayals -- rife with emotion, music, sounds and images of the period -- added much depth to the story, perhaps the most impactful element of the two days of events were the post-film conversations with two of the actual Freedom Riders, Diane Nash and Abraham Bassford, who told attendees about their experiences in person.

Nash led the student wing of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and helped organize the Freedom Rides. She was sentenced to more than two years in prison for teaching nonviolent tactics to children in Jackson, Miss. although she was four months pregnant. Though the case against her was later dropped, she served 10 days in jail for contempt. 

Mild-mannered Nash, known for her quiet, yet strong leadership, told attendees firsthand about the humiliation she felt whenever she obeyed a segregation law.

“Being segregated attacked my sensibilities,” Nash said. “Every time I obeyed a segregation law or practice, it felt that I was agreeing -- that I was too inferior to use the facilities that the rest of the public would use. It made me really angry and so I started looking for organizations that were trying to combat segregation.”

Nash urged the students to take a stand for the causes they believe in, to study issues they care about, to take action, and to trust themselves.

“We were trying to create a society, the best society we could, for you to be born into and come of age,” Nash told the students. “Future generations are going to depend on you to do the same.”

“Freedom Riders” producer Laurens Grant explained to the students, who came to the program from the Gary, Hammond, Merrillville, and Lake Ridge school districts, about the challenges Freedom Riders faced in an era that lacked today’s commonly accepted technological advancements.

“When they were on that bus and surrounded by the mob, they couldn’t just text ‘Help us’ to someone. That wasn’t an option,” she said.

Grant explained that the role of a producer on a movie, even a documentary like “Freedom Riders,” is to ensure that the production runs on schedule and to address any problems or conflicts. In producing the award-winning documentary, for instance, Grant was called upon to convince the FBI to let the filmmakers use footage they had confiscated of the Freedom Riders’ bus burning after a mob had set fire to it.  

Preceding the public screening of the film on Jan. 12, many from the campus and community raised their social consciousness with their attendance at a roundtable discussion, “How the Freedom Rides Changed America: A Half-Century Retrospective.”

The discussion was led by Associate Professor of Sociology, History and Minority Studies Jack Bloom, Ph.D, and included former Gary mayor and Adjunct Professor of Minority Studies Richard Hatcher; .; and Chicago Sun-Times columnist and ABC 7 political analyst Laura Washington.

Bloom discussed key strategies that characterized the Civil Rights Movement, including the media’s role and the activists’ refusal give up to violence and terror.

“They relied upon a strategy of forcing the South to do in public what it had traditionally done in private,” Bloom explained. “To overtly repress in front of news media . . . . and force them to carry out these acts in front of the whole nation.”

Washington talked about the crucial role advocacy journalists play in drawing attention to injustice both then and now. She drew parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and today’s Occupy Movement, noting that both groups are smart and strategic about how they use the media.

Hatcher recalled living in segregated Gary and witnessing the violence and hatred of the Deep South when he traveled to Mississippi.

“The Freedom Riders, I will always owe them a debt of gratitude for what they were courageous enough to do,” Hatcher said. “The opportunity to be part of this movement that changed the face of America was something I’ll never forget.”

Hatcher discussed the transitional period around 1967 in which politics became the avenue for continuing the struggle for equality and justice.

“The Civil Rights Movement in this country went through a transition during that period and basically moved from the streets, as people say, to the suites,” Hatcher said. “We began to see the potential in the electoral arena that could help to bring about some of the change that was being sought.”

Concluding what has become a popular tradition each January at IU Northwest, Nash summarized a common sentiment about the campus’s annual tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I think Martin King would approve and be proud of your program today,” Nash said. “I was so moved by the program because it reminded me of all the suffering and sacrifice and glory that our people have been through over the years.”