This article originally appeared at the North Lawndale Community Network
Freedom riders who protested during the civil rights movement in the 1960’s celebrated 50th anniversary at Powerhouse High School.
On May 21 at the Powerhouse, several singers, poets and other performers demonstrated their talents in honor of the Freedom Riders—a group of protesters who defied Jim Crow travel laws in 1961. Hosted by comic and radio host Brian Babylon, the event, entitled Traveling Down Freedom’s Main Line: The Freedom Rides at 50, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders’ protests. The event is part of a series of Chicago performance festivals that were inspired by Freedom Riders, a documentary that was directed by Stanley Nelson. (The documentary is based on the award-winning book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.) The series was produced by the Illinois Humanities Council and was directed by Alice Kim, director of The Public Square. The event began with a clip from the documentary, which featured vintage footage and photos of the Freedom Riders. The clip also included commentators that offered descriptions the struggles that the Freedom Riders faced.
The first performance was made by the Neighborhood Writing Alliance, an organization that allows adults in Chicago to write, publish, and perform works about their lives. The Alliance spoke to the crowd about how they will never forget what the Freedom Riders have done for America and the strife that the protesters went through to achieve their goals. The Alliance talked about the segregation that existed many decades ago and how African Americans had to fight against the injustice that occurred during that moment in time. They spoke about how thankful that are to the Freedom Riders for their efforts. Next, the crowd witnessed a performance by Ami Saraiya and Anna Soltys, two singers that provoke a crosscultural awareness with their music. They sang four songs that were related to the struggles of Freedom Riders and other civil rights protesters. Among the songs they sang were the classic freedom song We Shall Overcome and Sam Cooke’s famous song A Change is Gonna Come. The audience, who knew both songs well, sang along with Saraiya and Soltys. They also performed original songs entitled “Change” and “Sweet Chariot.”
Afterwards, there was a performance from the Congo Square Theatre, an ensemble theatre company that produces theatre that is created from the African diapora and other world cultures. Using theatre, the performers recited several facts about the Freedom Riders and provided detailed backgrounds of some of the protesters who were involved in the Freedom Riders’ protests. Ugochi, an Afro-soul singer, was the next person to perform on stage. She sang three songs that were designed to uplift and inspire people. Two of those songs she sang, “So Be It” and “Nigeria,” were written by her. The event ended with the Young Chicago Authors (YCA), a group that uses creative writing, performance and publication to promote self-expression. They recited four poems and one monologue in honor of the Freedom Riders. After the event, Babylon spoke to the Riders from front page North Lawndale Community News, saying that the performances were “awesome.”
He noticed that the performances showed the performers’ understanding of the Freedom Riders. “I think each performance was able to articulate how each artist saw the Freedom Riders movie and just civil rights in general,” he said. What he liked about the event in general was that it was an opportunity for people with various backgrounds to join together. “You never really see people from different walks of life—old, young, White, Black— get together for pretty much anything. It’s a segregated town.” He thought it was “cool” to see people using the arts for civil rights. Kim also enjoyed the performances. She felt that the performers successfully interpreted what happened in history. She added that the event and events like it “remind us of what took place in the past, but they also help to point a way for the future.”