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April 7, 2011

Michigan State student relives 1961 Freedom Rides

EAST LANSING, Mich. — A passionate believer in diversity and social justice, Michigan State University junior Erica Shekell will be the only college student from Michigan – one of two from the Big Ten – to participate in a 10-day journey through the South that retraces the original 1961 Freedom Rides.

Shekell, a journalism and media arts and technology major and a member of MSU’s Honor’s College, was chosen from nearly 1,000 applicants to participate in PBS’ “American Experience” 2011 Student Freedom Ride.

Fifty years ago, a diverse group of men and women boarded buses to fight for civil rights. According to PBS, the 40 students selected reflect the same diversity.

“I may not understand what it’s like to be told to sit in the back of a bus because of my skin color, and I may not understand what it’s like to know that I was passed up for a job because of my race,” said Shekell, of Howell, Mich. “But I understand from firsthand experience that an injustice to one is an injustice to all.”

From May 6 to May 16, 40 students will travel, all expenses paid, with some of the original Freedom Riders by bus, starting in Washington, D.C., and finishing in New Orleans. They’ll meet with some of the most influential civil rights leaders while learning from each other about civic engagement efforts on campuses around the country.

“Freedom Riders,” a documentary filmed by Stanley Nelson about the original riders, will broadcast 9 p.m. May 16 on PBS’ “American Experience.”

In addition, the students’ experiences will be broadcast in real time, using social media to foster a discussion on social change.

“Some might consider social media ineffective in affecting change. I disagree,” Shekell said.  “While previously people got their stories and faces out to the world only by staging large events and engaging in risky behavior – even death – to get media attention, social media has democratized this process. Social media is effective for organizing and providing information and insight.”

Shekell is an active member of MSU’s People Respecting Individuality, Diversity and Equality. Most of her activism has been through Facebook and Twitter – one of the reasons she believes she was selected.

“As a journalist, I am told that I must learn to drop my preconceptions of others. But that’s also a necessity for a person sharing this world with 6 billion others,” she said. “To do this, I seek knowledge. I seek the truth. I seek faces and stories and understanding – to, in turn, share with others. The Student Freedom Ride will provide an opportunity for all of that.”

The Twitter hashtag for the event is #pbsbus, and handles are @pbsamex and @FreedomRidePBS. Updates will also be posted to Facebook at

Shekell, whose Twitter handle is @eShekell, will be tweeting during the trip.

Television’s most-watched history series, “American Experience,” brings to life characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present. Acclaimed by viewers and critics alike, “American Experience” documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award, including 24 Emmy Awards, four duPont-Columbia Awards and 14 George Foster Peabody Awards.

Funding for the 2011 Student Freedom Ride is provided by Liberty Mutual, with additional funding provided by Lynn Bay Dayton and the Fledgling Fund.


Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for more than 150 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.