Merlene Davis: Murray student to join Freedom Riders on 50th anniversary

Herald-Leader columnistApril 12, 2011 

John Walker of Nicholasville was selected as a 2011 Student Freedom Rider.

One Kentuckian rode on an integrated bus during the first Freedom Rides of 1961, traveling through the Deep South in an attempt to end the oppressive legal policy of segregation.

Now, as that event is revisited on its 50th anniversary, another Kentuckian will get on the bus, this time to participate in a safe, but unique, learning experience.

John Walker, 22, of Nicholasville will be one of 40 students on the 2011 Student Freedom Ride. The students will relive history with some of the original riders and filmmaker Stanley Nelson, who produced Freedom Riders, which will premiere on KET at 9 p.m. May 16.

"This looks really awesome," said Walker, who is majoring in journalism at Murray State University. Walker thinks he was accepted because of his activism in environmental issues, including opposing mountaintop-removal coal mining.

"The actual theme of the ride is civic engagement," he said. "I've done a lot of stuff, but I'm sure there are people out there who have done a lot more."

Regardless, as the only Kentuckian making the historic journey, Walker said he has boned up on the rides, which he first learned about in class at West Jessamine High School.

"I'm amazed at how much this event was overlooked," he said. He had studied history before switching his major. "This series of events galvanized the major (civil rights) leaders. Even (Martin Luther) King said they ought to rethink this."

About 1,000 students applied for the chance to retrace the route. They will be required to write essays, maintain a blog and use a form of social networking that others can follow. Walker said he has to regain his footing in that area. He had abandoned Facebook, preferring face-to-face encounters to those of the virtual world.

The ride begins in Washington, D.C., and ends in New Orleans. On the original Freedom Ride, Joseph P. Perkins of Owensboro was a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality, the sponsor of the effort to desegregate interstate transportation.

Perkins and seven other blacks and six whites boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses and traveled to Charlotte, N.C., where Perkins was arrested for sitting in a shoe-shine chair reserved for whites. He spent two days in jail before rejoining the group.

In Atlanta, the two groups split, with Perkins' group heading for Anniston, Ala., where that bus was firebombed and a mob barricaded them inside, briefly. The riders were able to escape.

The second bus traveled to Birmingham, where the riders were beaten by a mob. The bus drivers refused to go any farther, and many of the riders boarded plans to New Orleans, which had been their destination.

From May to November, college students from throughout the country joined the effort to end segregation on interstate buses.

Nothing like that is expected this time. There were nearly 1,000 applicants for the 2011 Student Freedom Rides. Those selected come from 33 states and the District of Columbia. Students from China, Tajikistan and Haiti also will take part in the moving classroom.

There will be two days of events at the Newseum in Washington before the group boards buses May 8. They will travel through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Walker's parents, Debra and Gary Walker, said they are pleased that their son will have such a unique opportunity to revisit history.

"I always taught my children to embrace all things and all races and to treat everyone the same," said Debra Walker, who lived overseas a lot in her youth as her parents worked for the federal government.

"He gets a chance to relive history and get a new perspective," Gary Walker said. "I was proud he was chosen."

John Walker will have to take his final exams a week early to take the trip, but that has been approved by his professors. Although he doesn't have many details about the ride, he is looking forward to it.

"I haven't been given a full itinerary," Walker said. "It's like a mystery, maybe to put us in the same mind-set as the original riders. I know we will be meeting with young people and civic leaders along the way.

"As the time gets closer and closer, I'm trying to play it cool," he said, laughing.

We all can follow Walker's journey on Twitter at hashtag #jwalkmurray.

Reach Merlene Davis at (859) 231-3218 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3218, or mdavis1@herald-leader.com.

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