By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — When she gets on a Mississippi-bound bus to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders later this month, Victoria Albino, 15, a freshman at East Harlem's Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation will be thinking about immigration.
Her best friend is an immigrant whose brother was deported shortly after receiving his high school diploma because he did not have legal status.
And just like the Freedom Riders — civil rights activists who were imprisoned and attacked when they rode buses across state lines to challenge segregation laws — Albino believes immigration laws need changing.
"He wasn't born here but he's been here since he was young," she said of her friend's brother. "I would have done it for something I believe in. I would have rode to change immigration."
Albino will join 14 other students from the neighborhood's first charter high school and dozens more from around the city for a four-day ride starting May 20 that will retrace the route of the original Freedom Riders, making stops in Washington, D.C., Greensboro, NC, Atlanta, Ga. and Jackson, Miss.
It was 1961 when the group traveled to the Deep South to force the government to uphold a Supreme Court ruling from the previous year that banned segregation on public transportation. They were met with repeated violence from white mobs as their bus pulled into cities throughout the region.
Students from Renaissance have met with two of the original Freedom Riders, Lewis Zuchman, the executive director of Supportive Children's Advocacy Network and LaVaughn Brown.
"We are hoping to raise their consciousness so they understand not only what we did but the world they are in, the problems they face and how to confront them," said Zuchman.
The students learned about the civil rights movement and will produce multimedia projects based on their travels throughout the South and interviews with Freedom Riders.
They will also participate in the Mississippi Freedom 50th conference as the official New York City youth delegation, where they will "move toward addressing the disparity of inner city education for young people," Zuchman said.
"We will talk about direct action and what changes they can ask for but it's going to be up to the young people to decide what action they will take."
Principal and school co-founder Nicholas Tishuk said: "We are trying to make a connection between what happened then and what's happening now.
"Some of the Freedom Riders were really young. The fact that our kids can see some of the people who did these great things were around their age is wonderful."
The effort is part of the immersive learning principles at Renaissance. The school is in its first year and has admitted kids mostly from the surrounding area. About 40 percent were classified as special needs, 14 percent are still learning English and most were testing below grade level.
Students selected for the trip had to express a passion for the endeavor and participate in additional learning and research projects. One of the themes was: What would you ride for?
For Ezekiel Clarke, 15, the answer was police harassment and racism. "They did a lot of work and they were serious about it. Their bus was set on fire and they were almost bombed but they kept going," Clarke said of the Freedom Riders.
Tiffany Santos, also 15, said she would ride for world peace.
Naija Tyler, 14, was surprised to learn how diverse the original effort was.
"It wasn't only blacks. There were whites who also fought for equality," she said. "It made me feel good to learn that others helped."
Ramesha Wembley, 15, said she wants to "experience what the Freedom Riders went through."
"You get to expreience it firsthand in a way. You don't just have to read a history book. You get to go to the actual site," she said.
Kyle Sanders, 14, said the project led him to discuss the civil rights movement with his grandmother.
"She knew all about it," he said.
Tishuk said the learning won't stop when the trip ends. After the ride, the students will show their work to the world through multimedia projects posted online and hopefully make connections with other kids around the city to speak about their experiences.
"These kids have been counted out. No one expects greatness from them. No one expects hem to have a unique vision," said Tishuk. "But these kids are not just sitting in the passenger seat learning about history, they are active participants."