Freedom Rider recounts experiences to New Orleans students at exhibit

When she was 15 years old, Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons got involved with the civil rights movement in New Orleans; at 17, she set out in May 1961 as one of 400 Americans now known as Freedom Riders.

She traveled across the South with other nonviolent civil rights activists testing new laws desegregating interstate travel, including bus terminals, rest rooms, bus stops and restaurants as well as the buses themselves.

Smith-Simmons was beaten, arrested multiple times and jailed for a week.

Smith-Simmons spoke Wednesday to groups of students at St. Mary’s Academy, which is hosting a traveling exhibition on the Freedom Riders.

The exhibit is a companion piece to the 2011 PBS American Experience film on the Freedom Riders. After viewing a clip with a class from Helen Cox High School, Smith-Simmons was quick to point out that the film did not mention the involvement of the New Orleans C.O.R.E (Congress of Racial Equality) members.

“I want you young people to know that New Orleans was very involved in the civil rights movement,” she said.

Smith-Simmons described getting beaten in a bus terminal in McComb, Miss., and being part of the first successful desegregation of a lunch counter in Montgomery, Ala. She described singing “We are not afraid” in her head while watching her male companions doused with hot coffee and beaten with brass knuckles.

Because of their nonviolent philosophy, she described learning ways to protect themselves, like curling up in a fetal position and protecting the back of the neck.

Joined by a small group of people from New Orleans, “testing” for Smith-Simmons meant sitting on buses, at bus stations and at lunch counters where the desegregation laws had been all but ignored.

After getting brutally attacked in Mississippi, she said her companion, Jerome Smith, said, “Get Bobby Kennedy on the phone.”

He called out the then-attorney general’s direct phone number, which Smith-Simmons wrote down. She showed the piece of paper, now in an album, to the students.

Kennedy then told them that he had FBI agents waiting to fly them back to New Orleans, she described.

But Smith-Simmons told the students she said no — we are going back the same way we came, by bus. “I was only 18 at the time; I didn’t know any better,” she said.

Going to jail was an expected part of the movement — if you were a part of it, you did jail time, Smith Simmons said.

She spoke about working in New Orleans with activists such as Oretha Castle Haley and protesting the beating of three white freedom riders by police by singing loudly — before getting arrested — at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street.

Wednesday, Smith-Simmons said that she wants to see young people today get more involved.

Asked if the youngest freedom members were supported by their parents, Smith-Simmons described three sisters who every time they were arrested, had their names and addresses printed in the newspaper.

When their father’s employer saw the names, he was told to either stop his daughters’ involvement or get fired. The father lost his job.

One student asked Smith-Simmons, “Are we free now?”

“We have made a lot of gains, but we still have a long way to go. Freedom is not free,” she answered.

Even if it’s a small group, Smith-Simmons encouraged, high school students should do something when they see injustice and not wait for someone else to step in. “Take action, take responsibility,” she said.

Smith-Simmons engaged the students in a discussion about gun violence in the community, particularly among young black men. “In my day, when we needed to fight, we used our fists,” she said.

Helen Cox African-American history teacher Jonetta Jackson said that she brought her students on Wednesday because of the unique opportunity to meet someone who was directly involved.

“If we don’t understand the past, we are bound to repeat in the future,” Jackson said. “We need to understand what happened.”

Senior Shaniqua Wilson said that she had recently done a research project on the Freedom Riders and that watching the documentary was a very emotional experience.

Today, Wilson said, that she sees a need for young people to be more educated about history and to want to be part of the change for the future, in “increasing peace and stopping violence.”

She said she felt that people were “still segregated in our minds — we are not free just yet.”

Smith-Simmons spoke to four groups of students from different schools Wednesday. “If it motivated one person to do something, I’ve done my job,” she said.

The exhibit at St. Mary’s runs through Friday and combines photographs and news coverage to examine the movement from different perspectives.