SMC — Over the course of six months in 1961, more than 400 people, both black and white, risked life and limb while traveling on buses and trains through the Jim Crow South to challenge segregation laws.

Those men and women became known as the Freedom Riders, and the repeal of the repressive segregation laws through their efforts was one of the first victories of the civil rights movement.

Santa Monica College sophomore Carla Orendorff on Thursday left on a 10-day journey retracing the path of those activists with a group of 39 other students to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic rides.

The students competed in a nationwide contest held by nonprofit broadcaster PBS, which will be airing the “American Experience” episode “Freedom Riders” Monday, May 16 at 9 p.m. in conjunction with end of the event.

They represent a broad cross section of America, coming from 33 states, the District of Columbia, as well as China, Tajikistan and Haiti, and were chosen from their essays, their thoughts on social media and technology in civic engagement and their extracurricular activities.

Eleven original Freedom Riders will also be on the bus, sharing their experiences with the students.

“I’m a huge civil rights dork,” 22-year-old Orendorff said. “I feel that it was something that greatly influenced my activism, and one of my heroes is Diane Nash, one of the original student organizers. Now I’m going to be riding with her.”

Orendorff heard about the event through SMC Professor Melanie Klein, who saw it as a way for her young student to connect her activism with her studies, which concentrated on media and the way stories are shared in our modern society.

A filmmaker and student of social media, Orendorff has been capturing the essence of social movements since she was young. Her father campaigned for indigenous rights, and Orendorff would follow him to rallies, camera in hand.

“I spent my teens documenting immigrant rallies,” Orendorff said. “If you weren’t there, being able to see it is very powerful.”

The essay that won her a spot on the bus focused on using her videography to re-examine history through a fresh lens, and learn it from people who were there, in the flesh.

She wrote it while on her own journey, a two-month, 5,000 mile car trip from Boston to Los Angeles that headed through the South.

“It was a perfect time to be reflecting on this, because I’ve never been to the South, but I am interested in what was happening there,” Orendorff said. “It blew my mind.”

Orendorff will be venturing back south a bit sooner than she might have imagined.

The new Riders will begin in Washington, D.C. and continue on through Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and into Louisiana, ending in New Orleans, the intended destination of the first movement.

Part of the program for the students recreating the freedom ride will be producing media content to share their experiences and knowledge with the rest of the world, an aspect that spoke to Orendorff’s personal talents and ambitions.

Event organizers hope that material will inspire young people to engage with civil society using the tools that they are uniquely capable of wielding, much like the men and women that stepped onto the buses 50 years ago.

In 1961, the rides got headlines without the added benefit of social media, instead arresting the focus of the nation through the sheer audacity of their actions.

“It’s interesting to me the contrast between the original Freedom Riders who just got up and did it,” Orendorff said. “They weren’t thinking about YouTube, or updating a Facebook status. I think it’s interesting that we’re taking on this role as documentarians, recording the process.”


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *