by Isaac Naylor
A total of 60 years has passed since the historic Freedom Rides throughout the Southern United States in 1961. Lasting 7 months and 6 days, the 1961 Freedom Rides involved 436 participants across 60 trips. The rides came after a 1960 Supreme Court decision declaring segregated interstate transportation as unconstitutional. Among the organizations that planned and coordinated the rides were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Nashville Student Movement, and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The late Congressman John Lewis, a modern-day civil rights champion and namesake of the recently proposed John Lewis Voting Rights Act, was a leading member of SNCC and was instrumental in establishing the original Freedom Rides. The rides were successful in highlighting the disparities between judicial action and local attitudes regarding racial segregation, some of which persist to this day. However, the 2021 Freedom Rides sought to build upon the legacy of the original rides by continuing to shine light on racial inequities and fight to ensure voting equality.
This year’s Freedom Rides for Voting Rights, organized by Black Voters Matter and UNITE HERE, featured a voter outreach campaign that began on June 18 in New Orleans, La. and continued to cities such as Jackson, Miss.; Birmingham, Ala.; Nashville, Tenn.; Atlanta, Ga.; Columbia, S.C.; Charleston, W.Va.; and Richmond, Va. until June 25. However, on June 26, the two organizations combined their efforts when buses across the country converged in Washington, DC. Buses departed at 5 a.m. and returned in the evening. At the Capitol, the organizations made an appeal to Congress for change. Dr. Helen Holton, Executive Director of NOBCO, was present at the event in Washington. “We each play a part in the shaping of our nation, its laws, governance, successes and failures,” Holton said. “Joining the Freedom Rides for Voting Rights along with a massive crowd of like-minded people on a hot summer day in Washington, DC was amazing. People came from near and far to protest peacefully against the injustices being enacted by a few upon far too many.”
This national movement aims to address the issue of voter suppression, particularly opposing the 389 voting restrictions proposed and 22 bills passed this year in 14 states across the country. With emphasis placed on the voting ability of communities of color, this multi-organizational coalition seeks to combat legislation targeting early voting and absentee ballots that ultimately curtail voter turnout. One way this movement aims to achieve that goal is through reform that expands voting rights. UNITE HERE demands that the Senate pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, as well as statehood for the District of Columbia. Black Voters Matter is calling for increased awareness about legislation that limits voting, which is demonstrated through its Southern voter outreach campaign.