John F. Kennedy High School students, parents and teachers got a first-person history of the Freedom Rides when Alameda Contra Costa Transit District’s Freedom Bus rolled up at the school Thursday. The presentation took place at an open house for Kennedy High parents. The cafeteria served dinner and parents were encouraged to mingle with each other and teachers and look at student work displayed on tables throughout the cafeteria.
Elizabeth Hirshfeld, who taught at Kennedy High for nine years, told the audience gathered in the school’s cafeteria about her experience as a Freedom Rider in 1961. “A lot of my students didn’t really understand the danger and the pain of the deep South at that time,” she said.
Hirshfeld was one of a number of activists organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress on Racial Equality who rode buses through the South to draw attention to the continuing injustice of segregation and to test a Supreme Court ruling that banned racial segregation in interstate travel. The buses were attacked, one was fire-bombed and activists, including Hirshfeld, were beaten, arrested and jailed. Some Freedom Riders were killed.
The Freedom Bus project was developed to engage young people in the Civil Rights Movement and to highlight the role public transit played in that activism said Joel Young, an AC Transit board director who co-founded the project. The project started in December last year to commemorate the 55th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery, Ala. bus, said Young. The bus is in regular rotation throughout AC Transit bus lines and also makes stops at schools and other institutions as part of an education program for youth.
The Freedom Bus is a standard AC Transit bus wrapped in graphics that commemorate the Civil Rights struggle. Students at Berkeley High School designed the graphics that adorn the bus. On one side, Parks’ image and a quote are laid out with silhouettes of protesters. On the other side is an drawing of Claudette Colvin, another Alabama woman who also defied segregation by refusing to leave her seat in the front of the bus that was reserved for whites only.
Young said one of the most memorable moments of the project for him was when Colvin, now in her 70s, visited young people at Alameda County’s juvenile hall with the Freedom Bus project. “She came out and gave kids some inspiration by talking about her experience never giving up,” he said. “She’s really great.”
Standing on the bus, looking like he was lost in thought as he read the inserts inside the bus that gave some of the project’s history, Kennedy High Assistant Principal Reggie Marsh said it was moving to see the bus. “My mom was from Selma and my dad was from Birmingham,” he said. Marsh said his parents told stories of the violent reaction to the Civil Rights movement in the South. On one trip to visit family, they took him to see the Birmingham bridge where one bus of Freedom Riders was attacked. “This is very powerful for me,” Marsh said of the project. He said the most vivid ideas of racial segregation came from stories his father told about being in the military when it was still segregated.
Coach Clyde Byrd, who runs Kennedy’s football program, said he was very young when the freedom rides took place, but he remembers vividly the Watts riots and race riots across the country in the 1960s, a few years later. “I was a youngster when all of this stuff was going on,” he said. “But it’s hard to forget when you see that history going on.”
Hirschfeld told the students, parents and teachers gathered in the Kennedy cafeteria that joining the freedom rides was a defining moment in her life that she has never regretted. “I did it because I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t take a stand,” she said. “And I recommend that if you get a chance to take a stand, do it. Because it will live with you for the rest of your life, and you won’t regret it.”