The first night of Florida Philanthropic Network’s 2012 Statewide Summit on Philanthropy featured something new at the Summit: A Dinner & A Movie event, sponsored by Wells Fargo. We screened the Emmy-winning American Experience PBS documentary Freedom Riders. After the movie we had a discussion with Dr. Ray Arsenault of the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, whose book was the basis for the movie, and former Freedom Riders David and Winonah Myers.
The documentary itself was moving, disturbing, intriguing and inspiring – it’s easy to see why it won three Emmys last year. It shared details I never knew about six months in 1961 when more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives for simply traveling together on buses and trains as they journeyed through the Deep South. After facing brutal beatings, extended jail time in sometimes harsh conditions, burned buses and life-threatening showdowns with angry mobs, these brave young men and women ultimately succeeded in removing segregated sections on all interstate buses and trains and all bus and train stations and facilities.
Even more inspiring to me than the movie was to hear from Dr. Ray Arsenault and David and Winonah Myers, an elderly white couple who are now living in Bradenton, Florida. The first question they are always asked is why they decided to go on the Freedom Rides. As Winonah explained, both she and David grew up in extreme poverty. They met while they were attending Central State University, an Historically Black College in Ohio that was able to provide them a college education they could afford. All of their college professors and advisors were black. “They were our counselors, our mentors, our heroes and our friends; they broadened our outlook and introduced us to a whole new world,” Winonah said, her voice cracking and tears welling up in her eyes as she spoke. Yet these were the same people who were being barred from restaurants, beaten and worse. “That was just too much for us to bear,” Winonah said.
Dr. Arsenault noted that the remarkable thing about all 400+ Freedom Riders was that they were all seemingly ordinary people, but there was something about all of them that was extraordinary. That clearly holds true for David and Winonah Myers – a more inspirational, kind and humble couple you will not meet. The Freedom Riders movement set the stage for greater civil rights victories down the road, yet the story is not as widely known as it should. Many thanks to Dr. Arseanult and David and Winonah Myers for sharing their story with us. As we all struggle to alleviate the many problems facing our communities and our state today, there are many lessons we can take away from the courage of the Freedom Riders.
– David Biemesderfer, President & CEO, Florida Philanthropic Network