A detail of the Clayton Museum and Library's "Get On Board" Exhibition. In the foreground, a reproduction of the jail cell freedom riders were confined to after attempting to eat at a Houston lunch counter. In the background, a reproduction of the counter.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the historic Freedom Rides: where activists of all stripes took the struggle for civil rights directly to the South. In Culver City, the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum is commemorating the anniversary by bringing a new local focus to the historic rides. Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson talked with Museum Director Larry Earl about the exhibit, called "Get on Board."
In 1961, Los Angeles was an epicenter for the civil rights movement: both religious and secular groups held regular rallies in the greater LA region, and Martin Luther King was known to visit the city often. Of the approximately 400 freedom riders that went South to fight for civil rights in 1961, 100 were from California. Get on Board: Stories of the Los Angeles to Houston Freedom Ride focuses primarily on one ride that was to take a large group of UCLA students to Jackson Mississippi. The bus never made it there, though. Instead, the troupe was arrested in Houston, Texas. The students had attempted to desegregate the lunch counter at Houston's Union Station.
Get On Board tells their story in the context of the civil rights movement using photographs, video, and several life size installations that help visitors experience the Freedom Rides for themselves. One of the strongest installations is also the first one visitors see: a shocking reproduction of a burned, wrecked Greyhound bus. On Mother's Day, 1961 another Freedom Ride was driving through Alabama when members of the Klu Klux Klan firebombed the bus. The Riders made it out alive, but barely. It's a painstakingly accurate reproduction, and museum director Larry Earl says that's no coincidence:
"We have the luxury of being in Los Angeles, the movie capital of the world" he said. "Instead of hiring simply exhibit designers, we hired set designers. We wanted people to see what was it that motivated over 400 people to risk life and limb to go down to the South."
Visitors will be able to sit inside a mock jail cell the riders were thrown into, and they'll encounter a replica of the Houston lunch counter--they're even free to sit, but like the riders, they won't be able to get a meal.