Freedom Riders traveling civil rights exhibit rolls into Wichita

Natasha Houston walked her three cousins past photographs of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and burning buses, then asked them: “Would you be willing to die for what you believed?

Corie Henry, 10, looked at her with wide eyes. “You’re not sure, are you?” Houston said with a laugh.

Houston had brought her cousins, as young as 8, to the opening day Saturday of the Freedom Riders exhibit at the Kansas African American Museum. The national traveling exhibit marks the 50th anniversary of the 1961 protests against racial segregation of interstate travel.

“I feel like this generation is not aware of the previous struggles that have taken place for some of the things we’re enjoying now,” Houston said. Then she smiled again. “They wanted to come with me. But they were going to come with me, whether they wanted to or not.”

In 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation on buses unconstitutional. That decision capped an 11-month boycott of public transportation in Montgomery, Ala., sparked by Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, and gave King, a local pastor, a voice heard across the nation. But the so-called Jim Crow laws died hard in the Deep South, and in 1961 a group decided to test another Supreme Court decision ending segregation on interstate transportation. They boarded buses in Washington, D.C., bound for places like Montgomery, Ala., and Jackson, Miss. From May to November, more than 600 people traveled by bus and train, meeting violent mobs and police along the way.

“They faced attacks. They were jailed. Their buses were burned,” said Prisca Barnes, executive director of the museum.

They became known as the Freedom Riders. Their efforts forced President Kennedy to take action to help end segregation in the south. On Nov. 1, 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission passed strict orders against segregation in public travel.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History built the exhibit as a companion to the PBS “American Experience” documentary of the same name. The film previewed in Wichita last February before airing on the network in May. Barnes said another screening of the two-part series returns to Wichita at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 8 and Dec. 15.

“Once we saw the film, we wanted to find out more,” Barnes said. “We found out there was an exhibit traveling throughout the country, and we wanted to get that here.”

Fourth- and fifth-grade students in Wichita will get to learn more about local civil rights efforts during a bus ride of their own next month in an event funded by a transportation grant, sponsored through Koch Industries.

“We will give them a Freedom Ride of their own,” Barnes said. “We’re going to go through sites like the Dockum sit-in and the Piatt (plane) crash, learn about the African-American experience in Wichita, then bring them to this wonderful exhibit.”

Houston it was important to her to make visiting the exhibit a family experience by bringing her cousins.

“It’s not just the school’s responsibility to educate them,” Houston said. “It’s our responsibility, too.”