Freedom Rider relates message on hate, hope

The echoes of the civil-rights movement resounded in the Union Ballroom on Jan. 31, as former Freedom Rider Dave Dennis addressed over 100 students and faculty as part of Geneseo's continuing commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.

Dennis grew up in northern Louisiana and attended Dillard University, where he saw victims of the first Freedom Ride, in which activists rode interstate busses into the segregated South to test a 1960 Supreme Court decision that held that racial segregation in public transportation was illegal. On many of the rides, activists were beaten at bus stops and busses were burned.

Although not originally inclined to become active in the anti-segregation movement, he did participate in the famous lunch-counter sit-ins and a Freedom Ride in Alabama.

Dennis spoke of his first encounter with King and the famous activist's discussion of, "fear and being afraid, and the difference between the two."

He recalled that the busses they rode from Montgomery to Jackson were surrounded by members of the National Guard and that he and others believed not all would survive the ride.

Although 19 Mississippi protesters were killed in the summer of 1964, Dennis said that the movement was successful because it prompted a political response and partially resulted in changes that led to Mississippi's election of more black officials than any other state.

The erosion of the physical aspect of the black community is a problem, Dennis said, pointing to the construction of interstate highways through once-vibrant black communities like New Orleans and Durham, N.C.

"Everybody has their own identity," he said, questioning why some complain about black neighborhoods and eateries when areas like Chinatown and Little Italy are celebrated.

He finished his speech with a discussion of the modern problem of displaced Hurricane Katrina victims, and called education reform the key to fixing problems in this country. When asked if he endorsed any of the current presidential nominees, he said that he did not and that as a people we should not depend on one person to change things.

To encourage the audience to become active in solving the country's problems, Dennis said, "1,000 kids left Mississippi in 1964 mad as hell, and the country hasn't been the same since."

Student reaction to Dennis' speech was generally positive.

"He's a really good speaker," said sophomore Jill Kautz. "It's hard not to respect him."

"I may disagree with him politically, but he's a wonderful speaker and an activist," said sophomore J.T. Andrews.

Dennis is currently the founder, director and chief executive of the Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project, Inc., a national nonprofit organization that strives for quality public education for all American children through the use of mathematics.

Dennis' presentation was sponsored by Multicultural Programs and Services, the Division of Student and Campus Life and the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Committee.