Students Find Freedom in Civil Rights Event

While most UT Arlington students spent their summer working or studying for their future, two College of Liberal Arts undergraduates traveled into the past.

Communication junior Nadajalah Bennett and Art & Art History junior Christian Vasquez – alongside Biology senior Iriel Hampton – were among a handful of college students invited by the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education to celebrate this summer’s 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The trio represented UT Arlington by traveling to the Washington, D.C., area and spending time with the original Freedom Riders – men and women who traveled through the South during the tumultuous 1960s in protest of civil rights issues.

“It was a very impactful experience,” said Bennett. “We got a chance to connect with other students and see their involvement in civil rights … and all the things you can get involved in. We spent time with the Freedom Riders and discussed how civil rights has evolved.”

The trio spent several days during the Fourth of July holiday weekend visiting government buildings in D.C. and Richmond, Va. But the highlight of the trip was a two-hour bus ride through Virginia where students engaged with the Freedom Riders, shared stories and discussed current issues surrounding civil rights, public policy and immigration.

“It was revelatory in many ways,” said Vasquez, who is completing a documentary on the trip. “There seemed to be a sort of transference of ideas and history going on. The Freedom Riders were just as excited and invested in the events as the students were. They were very willing to share. They were open and honest.”

Vasquez said the experience reminded him how the Freedom Riders were college-age when they embarked on their journey into the South. There, they were met with hostility, scare tactics and violent attacks. Several participants were killed.

“They were our age and rolled out of school to participate,” Vasquez said. “They were among the first wave. At the time they left, they didn’t understand the level of violence they would encounter. They described themselves as naïve in that way. Most of the Freedom Riders we were riding with were on the bus in Birmingham that was bombed.”

In May 1961, a Freedom Ride bus heading to New Orleans was stopped by members of the Klu Klux Klan in Birmingham, Ala., and burned. All passengers inside were beaten by the mob and nearly killed.

Schnavia Smith Hatcher, Director of the Center for African American Studies, said she was please her group could support the UT Arlington students commemorating the civil rights ride experience. Now, she is excited to see what these students take away from that experience and how they apply it to civil rights efforts in Arlington and North Texas.

“The Freedom Riders expressed that, at the time, there was a sense of urgency for the climate to be changed,” Hatcher said. “This new generation of leaders was able to explore history firsthand from civil rights activists, many who were college-age themselves when they began this journey 50 years ago, and be inspired to actively engage in the struggle for justice. Given the unrest in many of our communities today, a significant amount recently profiled in the media, the status quo still needs to be challenged.”

Bennett said the experience left her pondering ways in which she could address issues surrounding civil rights and equality on the UT Arlington campus. She said she intends to continue working the local chapter of the NAACP, Black Student Association and the University’s Multicultural Affairs staff.

“I have a better understanding of how students today can improve their education in civil rights,” she said.

Vasquez said conversations with the Freedom Riders made a significant impact and caused him to spend more time reflecting the ways in which he can make a difference in his community.

“You should always try to right the wrongs that occur in the world,” he said. “One of the big takeaways I got was that the power of individuals can change the infrastructure around them. It’s incredibly inspiring to be sitting with people who have had an indirect effect on my life.

The Center for African American Studies will host a lecture event on the Freedom Rides on Oct. 1 in the Rosebud Theatre at the E.H. Hereford University Center. Students and faculty are expected to speak. For more information, visit www.uta.edu/caas.

Vasquez said he intends to have a 15- to 20-minute documentary on the anniversary event – commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education – available in early fall.

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(By James Dunning/COLA Communications, jdunning@uta.edu)

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