Freedom Riders return to Pine Belt 50 years later - WDAM-TV 7-News, Weather, Sports-Hattiesburg, MS

Freedom Riders return to Pine Belt 50 years later


More than 50 years after they first came through Mississippi - when the state was known for racism, prejudice and Jim Crow laws, the pioneering civil rights Freedom Riders are back, making their way through Pine Belt schools.

They visited Hattiesburg High School Tuesday talking about the fear, the courage, and what motivated them to take that very first ride.

Twenty some high school juniors were quiet, the classroom, which was on the small side, was silent except for the voice of Freedom Rider Margaret Leonard, and the occasional hand raise and question.

"One of the (questions) that's really hard to answer is what caused the prejudice,
 says Leonard. "Well I have to get philosophical on that, that's a hard one."

Four Freedom Riders are speaking to middle and high school students across the state about what it was like, back in 1961, when they boarded public buses, violating segregated transportation systems in order to bring national attention to the hatred and prejudice that branded the American South.

"They all want to know how my family and my friends reacted - pretty well - on the whole,
 says Leonard.

During the Civil Rights Movement there were more than 400 Freedom Riders, black and white,  risking arrests, beatings and even their lives in the name of racial equality.

"When I first heard about the Freedom Riders," said Leonard, "I was very opposed, I thought everyone would be killed. Including me."

"It's always important to have a moment where you can hear from those who were part of your past so you can be sure about what your future is," said Hattiesburg High School Principal Robert Sanders.

"One of the things that I love now is that people are pointing out to us now is that things are different and you helped. I didn't know I was going to help anything really," said Leonard.

The Freedom Riders visited Macomb schools Monday, Hattiesburg Tuesday and will be in Jackson speaking with students tomorrow.

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