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U of A student Williams chosen for 'American Experience' Freedom Ride

Posted 14 Apr 2011

Samantha Williams of Bryant, a junior political science major at the University of Arkansas, is one of 40 college students in the United States who has been selected for the “American Experience” 2011 Student Freedom Ride, an experiential learning opportunity for college students in conjunction with the broadcast of “Freedom Riders” and the 50th anniversary of the original May 1961 Freedom Rides. Anyone interested in following Williams’ experience on the Student Freedom Ride is encouraged to visit to read her blog posts and see photos.

“The Civil Rights movement in particular is a topic I have loved studying about ever since junior high school, so when this opportunity presented itself I knew I had to apply,” Williams said. “Although I have not been a victim of racism, I have witnessed firsthand the prejudice that so many people still have toward others who are different from themselves.

“I wanted to ‘get on the bus’ to share my experiences with other young people and create a positive dialog amongst individuals of all colors. The fact is that we can all make a difference if we step up and speak out for what is right. Additionally, I wanted to pay tribute to the selfless men and women who risked their lives for equality. They are the true heroes.”

Williams’ video essay application, as well as extensive historical information and film trailers, is available online at

Over a 10-day journey, May 6-16, the Ride will be a moving classroom in which 40 college students from across the country will retrace the route of the original Freedom Rides. Accompanied by filmmaker Stanley Nelson, original Freedom Riders and others, the Ride will engage students in this important era in our country’s history as they learn about the extraordinary commitment and courage of the individuals who took part in the Freedom Rides.

The original Freedom Riders who will join the students (many of whom were college students themselves in 1961) will share their memories of this bold and dangerous experiment in the fight for equal rights.

“I am beyond excited to speak to the original Freedom Riders – they are the reason I've been given this once in a lifetime opportunity,” Williams said. “I almost feel guilty in a way.

“I'm going on this 10-day journey where, quite frankly, I don't expect to be ridiculed, taunted or physically threatened. The Freedom Riders didn't have that same luxury. But, even though the circumstances are vastly different, I really want to try and see what they truly went through.”

The 40 Student Freedom Riders were chosen from nearly 1,000 applicants and represent a diverse cross section of America, much like the original Freedom Riders, who were black and white, men and women, and who, in 1961, used public transportation as a means of challenging segregation in the South. The students hail from 33 states and the District of Columbia, along with others who grew up in China, Tajikistan and Haiti.

Students from a broad range of schools are represented – from state universities to community and junior colleges, from religiously affiliated schools to the Ivy League. Students were selected on the basis of their essays on their reasons for wanting to participate, their thoughts on the role of social media and technology in civic engagement today, and their extracurricular activities.

The Ride will also serve as a means of launching a national conversation about the role of civic engagement in a thriving democracy, explore what issues inspire students to “get on the bus” today, and look at what forms civic engagement is taking on campuses and in communities across the country.

Kicking off in Washington, D.C., with two days of events at the Newseum that will gather many who were involved in the original Rides, the 2011 Student Freedom Ride will depart on Sunday, May 8, and roll through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and into Louisiana, stopping along the way at historically significant locations. The journey will end in New Orleans, the intended destination of the 1961 Freedom Riders.

“There are so many reasons the Freedom Riders' story still resonates with people today,” Williams said. “Had they not stood up for what was right, who knows what kind of nation I would have grown up in.

“At the same time, it'd be silly to pretend as if racism does not still exist. It does, and I've witnessed it, whether it be toward one of my best friends who is Palestinian or an African-American friend in high school. I strongly believe that in order to completely eradicate racism and intolerance, we must understand our history, and that includes the Freedom Rides.”

Students will also meet with today’s leaders in civic engagement. Confirmed as participants in the Student Freedom Ride events are original Riders Joan Mulholland, Rip Patton, Diane Nash, Jim Zwerg, Robert and Helen Singleton, Charles Person, C.T. Vivian, Bernard Lafayette, Catherine Burks-Brooks and Matthew Walker, as well as John Seigenthaler, former administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who was sent to Alabama to deal with the violence directed against the Freedom Riders. University of South Florida Professor Ray Arsenault, author of “Freedom Riders: 1961” and the “Struggle for Racial Justice,” on which Nelson’s film is partially based, will travel on the bus as resident expert on the people, places and events.

Among the highlights of the trip will be events at Atlanta’s Morehouse College with original Freedom Rider Bernard Lafayette, a ribbon cutting at the Anniston Bus Station, the town where one of the buses was firebombed in 1961, and a presentation at Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Center by John Seigenthaler. Events will also take place at Montgomery’s historic First Baptist Church, where the original Freedom Riders, along with Martin Luther King Jr. and 1,500 others, were trapped by a mob until the Kennedy Administration summoned federal marshals, marking a turning point in the civil rights movement.

The Student Freedom Ride will end in New Orleans on May 16 with a public event and rally to welcome the students and the original Freedom Riders 50 years later.

The acclaimed film “Freedom Riders,” directed by Nelson, will premiere on “American Experience” on the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) Monday, May 16, at 9 p.m. AETN’s website,, will feature Williams’ blogs, photos and other exclusive content from the trip.

The Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) is Arkansas’s statewide public television network that enhances lives by providing lifelong learning opportunities for people from all walks of life. AETN delivers local, award-winning productions and classic, trusted PBS programs aimed at sharing Arkansas and the world with viewers. AETN depends on the generosity of Arkansans and the State of Arkansas to continue offering quality programming. For more information, visit, or follow the AETN blog at AETN is broadcast on KETS (Little Rock), KEMV (Mountain View), KETG (Arkadelphia), KAFT (Fayetteville), KTEJ (Jonesboro), and KETZ (El Dorado).