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Freedom Summer 2004 Bus



  As the Freedom Summer 2004 Ride For Justice participants have continued their journey throughout the southern states, they have been enthusiastically joined by both local supporters from the surrounding communities and pilgrims from cities around the country all asking "Where Is The Justice?" and registering voters at almost every stop! Several of the riders have maintained journals of their journeys and have given permission for them to be produced here.  

Ash-Lee's Journals


Melva's Reflections

  Freedom Summer 2004 Riders

Journal 1 - Freedom Summer 2004 began Wednesday June 9th, with a church service at Bethel Baptist Church. Bethel, pastored by Rev. W.J. Hall and located in Brooklyn, is the oldest African American church built from the ground up in New York. All the participants (including two motor homes, a car, and an ice cream truck on a trailer driven from California to New York) boarded our trusty, dusty, Greyhound bus *we LOVE you Carl!!!!* and headed to Washington D.C. Upon our arrival in D.C., our group checked in at Howard University and hit the sack. After an 11-hour drive, we finally made it to the great city of Greensboro, North Carolina, to experience the swearing in of the commissioners of the Truth and Community Reconciliation Project *a 15 month review of the November 3, 1979, tragedy known as the Greensboro Massacre*. We also met Hollis Watkins, an original Freedom Rider, who taught us two songs and allowed us the awesome privilege of singing with him! That afternoon we engaged in about a two-hour voters' registration drive in Arlington Park, North Carolina. We made a deal with those we asked to register; "you register to vote, we give you free ice cream." Seventy people from that community were registered to vote. Afterwards, we went to a celebratory concert which included multiple types of music including Blues, Bluegrass, Jazz, and R&B performances by local artists and a world renowned band which just happens to be the one that played for James Brown. We went back to North Carolina A&T and are planning to head to Columbia, South Carolina, to participate in activities that will be made known to you at a later date *tomorrow*.
Talk to you all soon,
Freedom Riders
P.S. Alvie and Sheila- Your "O.G.'s" and "NKOTB" miss you sooooo much. We'll see you soon!! [Ash-Lee Henderson is shown above left, with fellow rider Sheryl Bauerschmidt)

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Journal 2 - Journal Entry *June 13th 2004*

Today, we were very warmly welcomed by the Columbia, South Carolina, community. The People's Agenda of South Carolina provided us with a delicious Southern meal....a good thing since food in the previous days was few and far between. After a moving ceremony honoring the slain Freedom Riders Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, the freedom riders took a tour of the home of Majedska Simpkins, a South Carolina civil rights activist. We then proceeded to a neighborhood of Columbia in which we divided up into teams and fanned out to register voters. The Freedom Riders registered 75 new voters and met many already registered voters who had kind words of encouragement. The day was not over yet, when we returned to be fed dinner, our fearless leader, Ben Chaney, informed us that we were to be in the presence of a legendary Freedom Rider, Dr. Cleveland Sellers. Dr. Sellers humbly shared his moving and inspiring story and related his own experience to the importance of our present role as Freedom Riders. Dr. Sellers answered several of or questions and validated many of our own personal reasons for joining the Freedom Ride for Justice 2004.

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Journal 3 - Journal Entry *June 14, 2004*

On Monday, we arrived in the ATL where we were once again greeted with a great meal and added 15 Freedom Riders from Dallas, Texas to the caravan. When we finished our meal, we were taken to a classroom to be instructed in Georgia's voter registration laws. Again, our fearless leader surprised us with a legendary man long associated with the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Joseph Lowery. Rev. Lowery tested our knowledge and offered words of support and admiration for our decision to join the Freedom Ride...peppered with several great jokes. The Freedom Riders then headed out to a working class section of Atlanta where we divided up and fanned out. The initial experience was different for many of us as we found a higher level of suspicion and/or hostility from those approached to register. We worked together to diffuse the tension and proceeded on through the community and found many friendly people. We are thankful for the 27 voters that were registered and the other information about individual's issues that was collected and hope that our results are stronger in our next community *Chattanooga, Tennessee*.
~Freedom Riders~
P.S. Welcome back Sheila and Avie! Hello to the great people we met at Woodruff Inn!!!!!!!

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Journal 4 - Journal Entry *June 15, 2004*

We spent the day in Chattanooga, Tennessee, hometown of our very own Freedom Rider Ash-Lee Henderson. After remarks from distinguished guests such as Rev. Paul A. McDaniel, pastor of Second Missionary Baptist Church, and Floyd Kilpatrick, president of the local Operation PUSH chapter, Ben Chaney was named an honorary citizen of the great city of Chattanooga. The Freedom Riders were then presented with Rep. Tommie F. Brown's (Sheryl's orange injury lol) 1997 passed resolution that the state of Tennessee become the final state to post-ratify the 15th amendment, which guarantees equal voting rights to all American citizens. After a prayer, a meal, and a few words of wisdom from a number of community members, the Freedom Riders hit the streets again to open eyes to the importance of voter registration and participation in the electoral process. Five hours, some hoops, and one crazy bus ride later and we were again greeted warmly at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with an Italian dinner and a gift bag fro the road. The Freedom Riders registered 111 voters in the Chattanooga community. Our own Ash-Lee Henderson impressed us with her professionalism and her wonderful Chattanoogan family and friends. After plenty of "thank yous" and "goodbyes", we boarded the bus and it was back to Atlanta...
~Freedom Riders~

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FREEDOM Rider Bus Set AFire By the KKK "Back In The Day"



Reflections 6/16 - Have been trying for days to get another update out about what I was up to now.  However it has proven incredibly difficult to get a hold to a phone jack so I can access the internet.  While we live in the most modern society in the world, Ben Chaney consistently manages to find these obscure locations with no phone jacks in any of the rooms, which means we can't do any of the things that we are used to.  Or maybe that is just me.  There are many folks who have cell phones but with everybody's phone roaming, like us all over the country, we have limited their use in running down errant voter registration participants.  We never know what we are doing from one minute to the next and when it is time to move, it happens so fast we barely have time to do anything more than load up and wait for instructions over the microphone as we are on our way.  I think it is because it would be very easy for us to slip into the mindset that this was a vacation and forget why we are here.  As it is, we can't seem to get every body up and on time.  He has resorted to the age old, tell everybody one time and have them ready and waiting, as opposed to giving the exact time and having every body late, which, in a group our size is inevitable anyway.  
Yesterday we picked up some young folks from Texas in Atlanta and went to a low-wealth area of Atlanta, Georgia.  Some of us went in the neighborhood thinking they would trust us, talk to us, and register to vote because we were black and our black faces made us easy to trust.  Others of us went into the neighborhood thinking because their face was white, their good intentions would shine through.  We found out very quickly, a stranger is a stranger no matter where the neighborhood is in the country, if people don't know you, they don't trust you.  So we ended up as a collective feeling these people should be grateful that we wanted to help and something had to be wrong with them.  Many of the Freedom Riders walked through the neighborhood frustrated and angry because we could not communicate in the limited time that we had, how important the right to vote is.   This was thought to be understood, and I guess most people just thought we would be greeted with open arms. 
Greensboro where we registered 70 new voters or address changes, and Columbia, South Carolina where we registered 75, set us up with a false sense of security as we went to high poverty areas but they were not public housing projects.  The area in Atlanta, while I am not sure whether it was or not, had all the hallmarks of a low-income community.  I felt it is more important to blame the system that created such an apathetic group of citizens, as opposed to blaming the citizens themselves.  The day was a whole lot different than the day before when we were in South Carolina where after we walked through three neighborhoods, we went back to St. Martin de Porres.  Again in true Ben Chaney fashion, before we ate, he surprised us with a visit from Cleveland Sellars, roommate to Kwame Toure and scapegoat from the South Carolina State Massacre.
As we sit there listening to him relate the events of that night which left 41 people injured including himself and 3 people killed, we could see in his unshed tears that he had unresolved issues about the events of that night and the cost of his presence to the lives of the children.  It was so remarkable to listen to him relate stories of how they worked hard all week and save their money for months at a time in Mississippi when he was younger, just to go to Atlanta and get a hotel room just to get a good night's sleep.  I could not resist the opportunity to ask him then about being poor and struggling day to day and once in a while buying yourself something nice.  He said it was a war zone and that was all they had.  I also asked him was it any wonder that with the close of the Civil Rights era and all those horrible stories, people just wanted to go away, is it any wonder our low wealth communities look like they do.  He said no, and the only way to get them back is to organize!  I was so happy to hear him say that. 
He moved me so completely that I had to give him a hug when he gave us the briefest of moments after he spoke to speak to him.  Ben Chaney caught the camera crew completely off guard and every body else.  He walked around quite pleased with himself and his ability to keep a secret and when we asked him about that later he said we needed to be ever vigilant.  He told us that a black man has been lynched in MS every month for the last four months and we can't afford to not be. 
Keep praying for our strength and continue to pray that our prayers for traveling mercy don't fall on deaf ears.
Melva L. Florance, Executive Director
The LaStraw

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Reflections 6/20 - I can't believe I have not gotten a chance to sit still long enough to write anything in two days.   This trip has been hard on us all and sometimes it is all we can do to make it somewhere to get vertical.  Some people may not understand and even find it rude when we drop off in mid-sentence.  Please don't feel disrespected if one or more of us seems to be out of it.  We are now in our eleventh day on the bus and for anybody who thinks it is just a picnic, I say, I will see you next year.  It is not.  It is hard work, in unfamiliar territory when many of us have done nothing like this at home.  One of the kids from Texas asked me today what I was going to do when I got home at the end of the trip, and I thought and spoke about our Summer Enrichment program that we hoped would be a Freedom School.  We were not able to raise enough money for the training for that, and the location we were offered the use of 'sort of' pulled out on us in the middle of May. 

I was surprised, but found it was typical of the expectations of commitments made in my community.  Meaning people say things because it sounds good at the time, but when it comes to the follow through, they can't be reached by phone, email, or snail mail for that matter.  Then there are others who do what they can and in that spirit we will go on and have our Summer Enrichment Program this year.  We will forego the church and go back to the library with a more structured program between 06-28-2004 and 08-02-2004.  We also have a community day planned for 08-07-2004 which was postponed from 06-05-2004 to allow me to prepare for the Freedom Ride.  Our Community Day will do a number of things, register new voters (my new personal goal), identify parents who want to be more active in the school system and organize local churches to support the programs of the The LaStraw.  We will also be providing school supplies for the children who never seem to get what they need by the time school starts, so we are looking for as much support as we can get.  After naming all that I realize how foolish it was for me to come on this trip, although I wouldn't have traded my experience for the world.  There is no value in an action done without sacrifice and this trip is all about sacrifice and determination. 

I have never before gotten out of bed at 6:00am on the regular, at least not since I was in High School.  But every morning I want to stay in the bed I think about Ben, James, Andrew, and Michael their sacrifices, and the sacrifices of their family and I get up.  When this trip is all over, I can go back to my life and see this as a learning experience.  If I chose never again to think about any of them I can, but they live with the memories every day, and for that reason, I get up out of my bed.  I walk when I am tired, my feet burn and I think I can't take any more, but hearing Ben's voice in my head telling us about his brother, and the things they used to do pushes me on.  His pain eclipses any pain I may feel and I go on.  With every step I take it is with fervent hope that he does not feel I am slacking, or that I am worth the effort.  There is nothing I wouldn't do for him, simply because all he and his family has given to me.  It is also really hard to reconcile myself with the knowledge that all of these feelings and experiences are possible because 3 men passed away and the irony of that lends a poignancy to every event that I just can't shake.  Like this morning as we walked across the Edmond Pettus Bridge [above], I can only imagine what that must have felt like all those years ago.  "Bloody Sunday", so much of what we are experiencing, coming to know and learn is coming with the knowledge that these acts were committed against living beings, and many of the crimes went unpunished.  Each story tears at my soul much as the bomb tore through the 6th Street Church and killed those four little girls, and we went there too. 

Right after we left the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute we walked across the street facing the park where so many people had been hosed just one generation back to the church where four children were sacrificed in the name of freedom, and I keep asking myself, was it worth it?  It is hard to come to terms with in my mind because so much is still wrong with this country but again, I am trying. Melva L. Florance, Founder/Executive Director The The LaStraw Greensboro, NC.

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Reflections 6/19 - I wish we had more access to the Internet because I would have liked to look back and see what everybody was thinking at the time. The idea of a group journal was only appealing to me when I thought everybody would be able to put something in written by themselves. Having one collective journal wasn't even a consideration for me. I have never been comfortable letting other people speak for me because I do it best for myself. One of the things Ben Chaney stressed to us is we have our own voice, and if we don't use it, then it is our own fault. I also don't like speaking for other people because very seldom are my views those of the collective. So, I speak for me, and my experiences and charge that everyone else must do the same.

Now that I am back at home, I struggle to hold on to the feelings that I had during the trip. I don't want to gloss it over into some great summer camp experience of memories, because it deserves to be more than an anecdote at dinner. My family and I don't sit down for dinner anyway. The only people who seem really interested in the trip are the people who made sure I could participate in the first place and I guess that is better than nobody. However, everyone who asked me only has a few minutes to listen and it deserves so much more than that. How do you condense 18 days into an engaging enough story to keep people interested while doing justice to the trip. It is simply not possible and I think that is what has happened with everything in our lives we don’t have time to spend on any one thing for any length of time so everything is “skimmed over” and “summed up”. So for those of you who want me to sum up the trip in just a few words, I have one thing to say, “I hate that for you.” It can’t be done.
The trip was 432 hours of concentrated Southern American History. With each stop there was a story told that awaken a memory from my childhood that connected a piece of my life, my family to this history of the south. After being on the bus for 18 days, I was able to make the bus my pen connecting the dots of my history and now that I am home I can finally take in the picture that we were drawing along the way. That was hard to see as we were in the thick of it from the New York heat to the Mississippi mosquitoes. We should all get college credit for our participation in the event because I have not learned and been engaged with history as much as I was in the last 18 days, after 16 years of education.

We also should receive our merit badges in leadership training because we were required by Ben to work our own differences amongst each other and without realizing it by the end of the trip we were the only consistency we had from start to finish. One of the biggest things missing from the education children (students) are receiving today is the ability to find value in everything both good and bad. Personally, I hated living out of a suitcase, being disconnected from the world and everybody that knew me. There were a couple of times when I did not feel my life at home was even real - that is how consuming this trip was for me. I found that thought to be terrifying almost as terrifying was how unreal the struggles from the past were to me. I have found in 18 days that until you are absolutely immersed in life – all aspects of life, you have never really lived. While I knew there were 50 states in my mind the physical reality of all that space and life disconnected/connected to my own did not hit me until 06-23 and it was just too much. However, I was able to learn innumerable valuable lessons from the experience including an acceptance that most people my age feel the exact same way.

The trip was not easy, even as I think back now and smile at something we did or said. Making the decision to go was the easiest decision I made and I did that out of defiance. Every day after I arrived in New York I wondered if I should just go home. I spent most of my time thinking of all the things I left home having not completed, and things that needed to be started. What kept me there is my generation and the one behind me (I am 29) doesn’t take the time to give honor or respect (if they can be separated) where they are due. Taking this trip taught us why we should honor these people, these acts in history.

Now that I am home…I can’t seem to stay awake! Saturday morning I woke up disoriented surprised that I didn’t see Cheryl or Ashley across the room from me. My next thought was they got dressed and left me in the room. I came in at midnight, and was mentally and physically exhausted, my last thought was, “If I have to hear “Get on the Bus!” one more time I am going to scream. When I realized I was home I immediately felt out of sorts. So much activity and excitement for 18 days, and then nothing was a shock to my system. I had plenty to think about, with the Summer Enrichment Program starting on 06-28-2004 and we don’t have a spot still, my windows on my car won’t go down, we lost our funding so we have to get by on $1,000, Community Day and all these other things were running through my mind, but all I want to do is plan for Freedom Summer 2005. The things in my neighborhood will get done because we need them to, but I need to know Freedom Summer 2005 us going to happen. That is what is going to get me through the day. As much as I hated the bus, and living out of the suitcase, and that disconnected feeling I have to know that we will be doing it again next year. I am just going to charter my own bus, and fill it with familiar faces and take my life with me when we go!
Melva L. Florance, Founder/Executive Director The The LaStraw Greensboro, NC.


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