I Rode on the Bus: Reflections on the Milwaukee Freedom Summer Pilgrimage

by Portia Cobb


freedom summer with watermarkThis summer marked the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer

This year marked a significant anniversary for me as well: becoming 60. My memory of Freedom Summer events are scant. They weren’t shared with us in school. Looking back now, I realized my privilege to have grown up in Southern California.  Few, if any, of the horrific details connected to the civil rights movement were openly discussed with children. From a distance, however, these events indirectly affected our families, many of which had fled the south to create better opportunities for their children.

My generation is one of the very first to benefit from the efforts of these foot soldier activists who pushed against laws that normalized segregation and inequality for black Americans. For my children, these events are like distant cousins, twice or thrice removed. Many young people today do not know the story of this movement in our shared American history.

I was honored to be invited to join a Freedom Summer Pilgrimage organized by a Milwaukee-based group called Arts@Large. Arts@Large is dedicated to experiential learning for teens. 

The journey was phenomenal. It took 30 of us into the past: 13 Milwaukee public and charter school teens, plus artists, MPS teacher chaperones, retirees from Waukesha who enrolled in the trip as a summer field course, and myself, a Milwaukee-based filmmaker. When I boarded that bus on June 25, I never suspected that upon my return to Milwaukee I would feel such a kindred connection to the students, the teachers, and others with whom I’d traveled.

A highlight for all of us was meeting Mr. Bob Moses, the leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and organizer of the 1964 Freedom Riders. In addition, we mingled and dined with Freedom Summer veterans, Freedom School teachers, members of each of the civil rights organizations, survivors of the martyrs, unsung foot-soldiers, national and regional Youth Coalition members and finally, guest celebrity and activist, actor Danny Glover. Peggy Rozga, who is a poet, humanist and widow of Milwaukee’s beloved civil rights leader Father Groppi, led poetry writing and performance activities along our ride.

On this journey, we all became the embodiment of those Freedom Rider volunteers who had also discovered a part of America they hadn’t imagined. Traveling through Memphis, Jacksonville, Tougaloo, Meridian, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham and Nashville, our bond was permanently cemented.  Through this pilgrimage, the spirit of the civil rights movement was awakened within us.

Since our return, our youngest travelers continue to represent the renewed vision of Freedom Summer as peacemaker ambassadors and “New Freedom Riders.” Some  are giving tours of the Freedom Rider Exhibit at Arts@Large.  Others  spoke  about the pilgrimage on Milwaukee Public Radio and Television, , and were featured in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Recently three of our students spoke to Milwaukee Public School Board members about the value of experiential education and expressed an interest in making this an annual activity for other students.

Plans to screen our short documentary, “Milwaukee Freedom Summer Pilgrimage, 2014” are in the works. Details will be available on the Arts@Large website.

I’ll never forget standing beneath the balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. It was emotional for me, as it was for everyone. We will always share this memory, and others, and they will continue to enrich us ALL.

Though I have traveled through parts of the southern United States, visiting the civil rights monuments for the very first time felt surreal. It underscored the freedoms others fought for, and reinforced my own identity as a citizen, artist, professor and mentor. 

Portia Cobb is Associate Professor, Film, Video, Animation and New Genres at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is also a former member of the WHC Board. 

Arts@Large was awarded a $10,000 Major Grant earlier this year for this project, “Freedom EXPRESSions: Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary.” 

Photo by Raoul Deal and used with permission. 


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