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Harlem Teens Retrace Freedom Riders' Journey

By Jeff Mays | May 20, 2011 2:12pm | Updated on May 21, 2011 9:38am

By Jeff Mays

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM—Tahreek Span wasn't sure what lay ahead as he boarded a bus Friday morning to mark the 50th anniversary of the famed civil rights Freedom Rides. 

The freshman at East Harlem's Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation admitted being a little nervous to follow in the tracks of the civil rights activists who braved arrest and violence to challenge segregation laws across the Deep South.

"I just want to learn what they went through," Span said, pausing for a second. "I want to honor them."

LaVaughn Brown, one of the original Freedom Riders, said the 50 students from New York already made him proud.

The group includes students from Hunter College High School, University High in the South Bronx, Renaissance Charter School in Queens and Boys & Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

"I'm very excited to see so many young people ready to go down to . . . pick up the mantel," Brown said.

The four-day ride will make stops stops in Washington, D.C., Greensboro, N.C., Atlanta and Jackson, Miss. A number of kids on the trip have never left the city and most have never been south of the Mason-Dixon Line, organizers said.

The students studied the civil rights movement for five months leading up to the trip and met with Brown and another Freedom Rider, Lewis Zuchman.

When the original Freedom Riders traveled to the Deep South in 1961, they hoped to force the government to uphold a Supreme Court ruling that banned segregation on public transportation. The riders, many of whom were just a few years older than the high school students on this trip, were met with repeated violence from white mobs as their buses pulled into southern cities.

One bus was fire bombed, almost killing those aboard. After the beatings, many were also arrested.

In Jackson, Miss., the kids will participate in the Mississippi Freedom 50th conference as the official New York City youth delegation. That's where the trip will be cemented as much more than a "historical journey", said Brown. The kids will discuss issues facing them today and then brainstorm about possible solutions.

"Things have changed since I took the freedom ride but many things are the same. The battleground has shifted from strictly race but it's now more complicated," said Brown. "There's issues around class, education, teen pregnancy and drugs. They have many battles to fight but its more difficult now to find common ground."

Assemblymen Robert Rodriguez (D-East Harlem) said the trip is designed to equip the students for those fights.

"This is a transformative experience...that will bridge the gap of what happened during the civil rights movement and what's happening now," said Rodriguez.

Nicholas Tishuk, principal and co-founder of the Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation, said the learning won't end when the kids return to the city on Wednesday. 

"They are going to talk to the people who lived the civil rights movement but also develop a map," said Brown. "Once they get past the burning bus and the arrests, the questions are: 'What's your world like?' and 'What happens now?'"

Rita Tishuk, Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation co-founder, said the kids will embark on multi-media projects when they return and hopefully begin to engage other young people in New York City about solving some of today's vexing problems.

"They are representing New York City and I'm just so proud of them," Tishuk said, her eyes tearing up as the bus rolled down East 99th Street. "This is their movement."