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Tuesday, June 14, 2011



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My most recent story on the PRI-WGBH-BBC Program "The WORLD".

50 years ago this month, black and white activists boarded buses in Washington and headed into the Deep South. That took courage in 1961.The year before, the Supreme Court had made segregation illegal in interstate travel. But the law wasn’t being enforced in the South. And so those bus passengers forced the issue.

They became known as the “Freedom Riders.”

This month, a racially integrated group of 40 American – and foreign – students recreated the Freedom Riders’ journey. Ray Arsenault, the author of a history of the Freedom Riders of 1961, is leading a group of 40 College students on a tour of one of Alabama’s most notorious sites. This place just outside of Anniston, Alabama, is where fifty years ago, the Ku Klux Klan attacked a Freedom Riders’ Greyhound bus bound for New Orleans. After slashing the tires, the bus was firebombed, which forced the riders into the road.

Along this highway outside of Anniston, Zilong Wang, who was born many years after 1961 in Baotou, China, is thinking about the lessons of non-violence practiced by the original Freedom Riders and how they might guide his beliefs and actions.

“This is not just a healing of the past but also it sheds a light on the future. Not just a future of the United States but also for China, because China will definitely go through a similar period,” Wang said. “How can we use non-violence and civil disobedience to bring meaningful reform into China’s social system under the condition of social harmony and stability, I think we’re learning a lot from them.”

Wang, a philosophy student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, is one of a handful of students chosen to board a bus from DC to New Orleans, to re-create the journey of 50 years ago along with original freedom riders. They met important figures from the time along the route.

Like John Siegenthaler, who was an assistant to US Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1961. He pointed out the contradictions of era – the Administration was pushing for freedoms around the world even as president Kennedy tolerated segregation and injustice throughout the Jim Crow South.

“The timing of the Freedom Rides and the conflagration that he (President Kennedy) hoped would never come, came at exactly the wrong time,” Siegenthaler said. “Came at the moment when’ he ‘s not able to make a convincing case about freedoms around the world, is not able to convince the Soviet Union ‘look free your people, let your people go. He’s not able to make that case because he had not let his own people go.” Siegenthaler said that the critical worldwide focus on domestic events in the USA helped to push the Administration into supporting civil rights.

Those events included attacks on Freedom Riders at this Trailways Bus Terminal in Birmingham, Alabama. This is the 8th city visited by the students on Freedom Ride 2011. Here Zilong Wang comes face to face with Freedom Rider James Zwerg, whose bloodied face peered from newspapers in 1961 helped compel hundreds of new riders to join the movement. Zwerg offers the college kids some pointers for their struggles, whatever they may be.

Follow the money: “If you want to bring about change you’re going to have to go the decision makers. In trying to change the movie theaters, it wasn’t going to happen,” Zwerg said. “In Nashville, for example, we had to make the people who owned the theaters decide to change.”

On this journey South, Zilong Wang and his fellow travelers also learned about the ultimate price that some paid for the advancement of human rights in the United States. The bus carring the 40 students has stopped in front of the 16th Street baptist Church in Birmingham. A bomb planted here took the lives of four little girls on September 15th , 1963.

Zilong Wang is only one of several foreign students on this tour of history and memory. Bakhrom Ismoilov is studying at Eastern Oregon University. He’s from Tajikistan. He equated some of the violence his country has recently experienced with the segregation of the south during the 1960’s. “It helps me a lot to see how much bigger and how much bigger scale it was. I can definitely relate this to terrorism, and actually putting a population of black Americans in fear,” Ismoilov said.

And over the din of the 16th Street Baptist Church Choir, Doaa Dorgham, a Palestinian born in Kuwait who wears a headscarf, laments what she sees as the irony of past and present discrimination in her adopted American land. “The irony of this situation is here I am celebrating how 50 years ago we made great strides to stop segregation in public transportation and discrimination, and then I’m in an airport and have to go through a body scan and have to go through a pat-down. And how is it that no one is able to see the correlation?” Dorgham asked.

As the Freedom Riders’ Tour winded down, students were asked what they will do with the knowledge they’ve collected along the way. Tanya Smith, who grew up in Haiti, and plans to return there to lead a non-violent movement on behalf of youth, spoke up.

“Just like the Freedom Riders saw the need in society for change, Haitian youth realize the power they do have and the stake they have for building Haiti’s future,” she said. “And I want to be able show that non-violence is more effective in the sense that you’re able to do what you’re doing without resorting to the same tools that your oppressors are using against you.”

WGBH , PRI and BBC Announce a World-Wide Reporting Initiative Focused on Color

WGBH Radio, Public Radio International and the BBC have announced the launch of “The Color Initiative”, a landmark journalism project that will examine complex global issues of politics, culture, history and society through the framework of human perceptions and experiences related to color. Once complete, this on-going project will air on The World, broadcasting on WGBH 89.7, Mon-Fri at 4pm and 7pm. Feature Color Initiative stories reported from around the globe will be produced by Lifted Veils Productions, a Boston-based non-profit radio journalism organization dedicated to exploring issues that divide society. Former NPR supervising senior editor and NPR’s former Race Relations Correspondent, Phillip Martin, will serve as lead correspondent. He is also the Executive Producer of Lifted Veils Productions. Anthony Brooks, The World’s former senior producer and former national correspondent for NPR, is the Color Initiative series editor. The World’s Executive Producer is Bob Ferrante. The project is made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. “The establishment of an international editorial beat dedicated to covering color worldwide is the first of its kind, and places The World in a unique position in public radio in the United States and Britain,” says Marita Rivero, General Manager for WGBH Radio and Television. Among the topics that will be explored by the Color Initiative are: • COLOR AND IMMIGRATION: A FOUR PART SERIES • IRAQ’S WAR DEAD, AMERICA’S RESPONSE AND THE ROLE OF COLOR • CASTE, COLOR AND EDUCATION IN INDIA The first report in the year-long project looks at the on-going marketing campaign by Benetton, which mixes business with socially conscious messages focusing on diversity of all sorts, including color. Those messages are now coming up against growing anti-immigrant realities in Europe, including the dominant presence of the Northern League in the very Italian city where Benetton is headquartered: Treviso. That report airs in early November. About The World Winner of the 2006 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for Broadcast News, The World with anchor Lisa Mullins has been bringing daily international news to local audiences for the past 10 years. Monday through Friday at 4pm on WGBH 89.7, the international staff of The World presents a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. The World is the first international radio news program developed specifically for an American audience, giving listeners an upbeat and informed take on the day's events. Co-produced by WGBH, the BBC World Service, and Public Radio International, The World is heard on more than 200 public radio stations across the country. About WGBH Listener-supported WGBH 89.7 is Boston's NPR® arts and culture station. Bringing you the best for more than 50 years, 89.7 serves its wide-ranging audience with a menu of classical music, NPR news, jazz, blues, folk, and spoken-word programs. The station is an active participant in New England's vibrant music community, presenting more than 300 performances every year, including live broadcasts and remote recordings from such diverse venues as Tanglewood, the Lowell Folk Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, and WGBH's own studios. WGBH 89.7 can be heard online anywhere in the world at, and can be heard on Nantucket at WNCK 89.5.