Louisiana honors Freedom Riders with exhibit

By Hoang Tran | Oct 29, 2015

NEW ORLEANS - Let freedom ride and history sing: the Louisiana Law Library is sharing an exhibit chronicling one of the most important moments in the American Civil Rights movement through Friday. 

Titled “Freedom Rides,” the exhibit is on display at the library in the Louisiana Supreme Court. The six-panel display, telling the story of the Freedom Rides, was created by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in partnership with the PBS history series American Experience. It is currently on loan to the library.

”It’s an important piece of American history," Valerie Willard, deputy judicial administrator of the Louisiana Supreme Court, said. " Those are the federal laws that it relates to, so it’s not just specific to Louisiana. It’s important for all citizens to know how our laws (have) evolved and how the road to our current civil rights law, as often with these laws that required struggle and hardship, got us here,”

Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson agrees.

“This exhibit tells the important story of the brave, non-violent protesters who defeated Jim Crow laws in interstate commerce," Johnson said. "In 1961, over 400 black and white Americans risked their lives by traveling together on buses and trains through the Deep South deliberately violating Jim Crow laws in (an) effort to force the federal government to protect the civil rights of the protesters."

The exhibit was created as a companion to the PBS documentary Freedom Riders, which aired nationwide in 2011. The film featured testimony from the Freedom Riders themselves, state and federal government officials, and journalists who witnessed the rides.

Those interviews have been interactively incorporated into the traveling exhibit, and provide a firsthand account of the violence, social-political tension and the climate of change that defined the time.

The Freedom Rides movement was launched in May 4, 1961 when a group of 13 African-American and white civil rights activists departed from Washington, D.C. and attempted to integrate facilities at bus terminals along the way into the Deep South. They faced tremendous violence and opposition from white protestors as African-American Freedom Riders tried to use segregated “whites-only” restrooms and lunch counters, and vice versa.

Their efforts were not in vain: the movement drew international attention to their cause and, over the next few months, convinced several hundred other activists to join their ride for freedom. Their struggles were rewarded when the Interstate Commerce Commission issued regulations prohibiting segregation in bus and train stations nationwide in September 1961.

“It’s a huge American piece of interest,” Willard said, “We are just fortunate to have it here to remind people, who can get to the court house and into the law museum, of this significant piece of history and the efforts of citizens to make changes to the federal laws.”

The exhibit was first displayed to a conference of Louisiana state judges and was received very well.

"As judges and people who are handling the law on a regular basis, they really appreciated the magnitude of the change and effort that made it happen," Willard said.

The exhibit is free and will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Friday.  The Law Library is on the second floor of the Louisiana Supreme Court courthouse. For more information about the Freedom Rides exhibit, contact Law Library Director Georgia Chadwick at 504-310-2400.

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