Jayanni Webster, junior in the College Scholars Program, has been chosen to participate in the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, which will repeat the journey of the original 1961 Freedom Riders' civil rights trip from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans.
The 2011 Student Freedom Ride is a re-enactment of the 1961 Freedom Rides in which young people (black and white) boarded buses to tour the South, spreading the message of civil rights.
"We will meet original Freedom Riders along the way, as well as participate in events and service activities," Webster said.
The riders will begin the 10-day trip on May 6 in Washington, D.C., and will complete it in New Orleans. A mix of student Freedom Riders and members of the original Freedom Ride will be on the ride. Stanley Nelson, director of the Freedom Riders film documenting the story of the original event, will also accompany them.
"We have benefited in many ways from what the Freedom Riders did, risking their lives to stand up for what is right," Webster said. "As students, we have many tools that were not available say five, 10 years ago to advocate for social change and to participate in civic engagement activities."
Webster, along with 39 other students, was selected from thousands of applicants to participate in this 50th-anniversary event as a part of American Experience on PBS. At first, Webster was not aware of the scale of her acceptance. She didn't know about the thousands of applicants until much later.
"I was very surprised and humbled that I was among a select group of university students from around the U.S.," Webster said.
Webster said the event will help those participating not only remember the past, but use it to change the future.
"This is a historic event, because not only is it a very well-documented social change event from the past, but its significance far exceeds that time period," she said. "We have a chance to not only reflect on the struggle and sacrifice that has gotten our country to this point, but how we can continue to build upon that struggle to enact change today."
In Webster's case, the event is more than just historical. It's personal.
"The Freedom Ride to me means the opportunity to connect with the past, discuss changes and actions for the present and to help and shape the future in a way that promotes civil and human rights," she said. "Personally, it means that I get to connect with a part of my mother's, father's and grandparents' history. It means a chance to prove to our society that the youth of today are engaged, informed and do care about social change."
Webster specialized her studies at UT in post-conflict education in Africa under the advisement of Rosalind Hackett, director of the UT Department of Religious Studies. Webster believed the Freedom Ride would greatly impact her current education.
"My major focuses on peace education initiatives in northern Uganda and the Student Freedom Riders, given its emphasis on civic engagement, echo some of the same themes that I've found looking at those initiatives," she said.
Kimberly Burley, a communications pre-major sophomore, expressed a great deal of pride in her friend's accomplishment.
"It's a huge honor," she said. "Jayanni is wonderful, very humble. She's very involved on campus."
Burnett said she thinks that Webster's involvement in the re-enactments are especially important for getting a better understanding of how the Freedom Riders felt.
"It's great that she's doing this," she said. "It's so hard to understand history if you didn't live through it. It helps to put yourself in the shoes of the past."
The Freedom Riders film will air on PBS on May 16, coinciding with the group's arrival in New Orleans. Information about the event can be found at pbs.org/freedomriders.