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Talking Freedom Riders at the State Museum

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A still from the documentary Freedom Riders.
  • A still from the documentary Freedom Riders.

The key topic — and recurring lament — during a July 10 discussion on civil rights at the Indiana State Museum was historical amnesia. A small, engaged audience was loath to end the hour and half conversation surrounding the implications and impact of the 1961 Freedom Riders’ initiative to force Southern states to abide by 1946 Supreme Court rulings outlawing segregation on public transportation.

Featured speakers were University of Cincinnati Clermont professor of biology and chemistry Dr. David Fankhauser, who was a college freshman when he followed his family’s social activism to ride from Cincinnati to New Orleans for the Civil Rights Conference, and educator Rozelle Boyd, who was elected in 1965 as Indianapolis’ first African-American City-County Councilor.

The program began with excerpts from the National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored film Freedom Riders, which is particularly effective for placing Civil rights activism within the context of international events, including the Vienna Summit between the USSR’s Khrushchev and U.S. President Kennedy. Leaders throughout the world pointed to the irony of U.S. social injustice in light of the administration’s push for social justice in the USSR. This caused Attorney General Robert Kennedy to take action to use federal resources to protect the Freedom Riders from Southern whites, including officials who sanctioned Ku Klux Klan beatings of white and Black Freedom Riders.

Nevertheless FBI officials who were in sympathy with white supremacists ‘looked the other way’ and allowed violence against and imprisonment of Freedom riders. News coverage brought nationwide attention to the injustices of Southern states’ oppressive statutes and unleashed activism that continues to the present.

Professor Frankhauser, who said he unequivocally believes in non-violence, repeatedly made the point that without economic justice social justice will continue to be evasive: “The segregation we have today is essentially economic.”

Boyd, who was “at the park when Robert Kennedy made the speech after the shooting of Martin Luther King,” pointed to the importance of effective communication between all residents of a community and attainment of education as the highest goal for our young citizens.

To continue the conversation, FREEDOM RIDES: Recollections by David Fankhauser, Fankhauser's website with a personal description of his experiences as a Freedom Rider, with illustrations.

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