Student activist relives 1961 Freedom Rides

PBS selects MSU junior for 50th anniversary tour

By Tara Cavanaugh

Erica Shekell is about to go on the ride of a lifetime.

The Michigan State University junior was selected among 1,000 applicants to take part in the PBS American Experience 2011 Freedom Ride. The ride celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Rides, during which a diverse group of men and women peacefully protested racism and segregation by riding together on busses through the Deep South. On their well-publicized journey, they faced violence, discrimination and even imprisonment. Their story is the subject of a PBS documentary, "Freedom Riders," that will air on PBS's American Experience program on May 16 at 9 p.m.

Shekell and 39 other students will travel along the same route as the original Freedom Riders from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans from May 6 to May 16. Shekell said she's particularly excited to meet some of the original riders who are making the trip with the students.

"I'm also really interested in getting to know the other students, because a lot of them have done absolutely incredible things on their campuses and in their communities," Shekell said.

Shekell, who first became interested in civil rights as a high school student in Howell, has an impressive resume like the rest of the students on the trip. The journalism and media arts major is enrolled in the Honor's College and is an active member of MSU's PRIDE - People Respecting Individuality, Diversity and Equality. She's also on MSU's planning committee for the 2011 Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender and Allies College Conference. Thanks to the committee, MSU will host the conference in 2013.

Shekell said what prompted an associate dean and a professor to recommend her to apply for the ride was her work with social media, which she uses as tools for activism.

"It can reach people who you would never be able to reach through word of mouth, mailing letters or phone calls," she said. "It gets the word out very fast - you can use Facebook to create an event for a protest or even create a Facebook group for contacting your representative in Congress."

Shekell, whose Twitter handle is @eshekell, will tweet about her experiences during her 10-day ride. PBS will also tweet about the trip @pbsamex and @FreedomRidePBS, and share updates at http://www.facebook.com/ride. The Twitter hashtag for the ride is #pbsbus.

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