MCLA gets living civil rights lesson

Saturday March 5, 2011

NORTH ADAMS -- Growing up in the 1940s and '50s, racial tensions in the United States were visual and tangible, according to New Orleans native Jean Thompson.

"Segregation at that time was so very thick, you could cut it with a knife and eat it, taste it," she said.

So when the opportunity came to join the Freedom Riders, Thompson said, "It was in my DNA to go."

On May 24, 1961, she became one of the many civil rights activists who began riding interstate buses in the segregated South to challenge local laws or customs that enforced and supported segregation.

On Friday, she was one of four Freedom Riders living in the New England region to visit the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts as part of a special free public screening of the Stanley Nelson film, "Freedom Riders."

The event was co-presented with public television station WGBY, which is coordinating a number of community outreach programs in observance of the 50th anniversary of those symbolic bus rides.

The Freedom Riders' actions tested the 1960 U.S. Supreme Court decision "Boynton v. Virginia," which outlawed racial segregation in the restaurants and terminals that served buses that crossed state lines.

The four Freedom Riders visiting MCLA on Friday were Thompson of Amherst, Judy Frieze Wright of Gloucester, James Breeden of Leyden and Albert Gordon of Stephentown, N.Y.

Regardless of race, age and gender, all four were jailed -- in various prisons and for varying lengths of time -- for their beliefs and actions to support civil rights for all.

MCLA history professor Frances Jones-Sneed moderated a panel discussion before and after the event with Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, executive director and co-founder of Multicultural BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for the Integration of Diverse Groups and Education). The panel also included another faculty member, Ely Janis of the MCLA history department.

"Today, students look at the civil rights movement in a monolithic way. They think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But they don't think of the ordinary people, black and white, who stood up, too," said Jones-Sneed.

She continued, "Today is a very different kind for time for issues of race. But there are still deep issues of class and race, even in this very community."

Said Gordon, "What we did was a half century ago, but I hope kids see that we're still around. Today, when they see an injustice, how they respond will be a matter of their own ethics, what they feel in their own hearts."

Marie Waechter, WGBY's director of community engagement and events, said that another public screening of "Freedom Riders" will take place on April 7 at The Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington, and will also include guest panelists and a new art installation in honor of Great Barrington native, social justice activist and black history icon W.E.B. Du Bois.


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