'The Buses Are Coming' exhibition commemorates Civil Rights Era Freedom Riders
Sunday marks Juneteenth, the commemoration of the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, when word finally reached the last enslaved individuals in Texas on June 19, 1865 — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863.
The date was first recognized as a federal holiday in 2021, which this year falls on Monday, June 20.
As we approach the historic holiday, the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art will present a new exhibition, on view June 17 through Sept. 7 in an outdoor exhibition at Quartyard.
The exhibit, "The Buses Are Coming," marks the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, a group of Black and white activists — mostly young people — who took bus trips across the South to protest segregation laws.
"The Freedom Riders were people that felt it necessary to challenge the segregation that was happening in the South, because the Congress had passed the law making it illegal to have separate and equal places in the bus stops and the airports. And in the South, they didn't do it. They just left them like that and left people just segregated," said Gaidi Finnie, executive director of the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art (SDAAMFA).
Finnie said that the Freedom Riders knowingly risked their lives, many of them setting up wills before they embarked on the journey.
"It was organized by the Congress of Racial Equality. They had people go down there and they trained them in nonviolent protest," said Finnie. "The first 13 of them — included Congressman John Lewis — went down there, traveling from DC, going to New Orleans. But when they got to Birmingham, actually to Aniston in Alabama, the Ku Klux Klan, the FBI and the governor all said, 'you have 15 minutes to kill, maim, hurt, whatever you want to do to those people and nobody will stop you.' So they did. They beat them up, firebombed the bus and all that."
Between May and September, approximately 300 activists traveled on the buses, and were sent to prison in Mississippi. The centerpiece of the exhibition is a collection of those 300 mug shots.
He said they originally set out to make an immersive, "Wonderspaces"-esque experience. They explored augmented reality and virtual reality with art during last year's "Say Their Names" exhibition, held outside the New Children's Museum.
"The Buses Are Coming" includes audio interviews accessed by QR codes, augmented reality, the mug shots and other photography that depicts the Freedom Riders.
When SDAAMFA began designing the exhibition, they wanted to connect the experience to San Diego. Several years ago, San Diegans Richard Allen and Taran Gray created the Broadway musical "Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical," which also just released a cast recording album in November 2021. Performances from the musical will launch the exhibition at the opening night celebration on Friday.
Also at the opening, seven of the original Freedom Riders will be in attendance.
The exhibition is on view through Sept. 7, 2022, and the exhibition and its related events are free to the public. Additional events include a collaboration with the Afrofuturism Lounge on July 21-22, local DJ sets on Aug. 5, a poetry performance with Common Ground Theatre on Aug. 28 and jazz guitarist Elliot Lawrence on Sept. 1.
Finnie said that the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 has similarities to the protests of the Freedom Riders.
"I think that history sometimes repeats itself and you need to know your history, right? So during the Black Lives movement — during COVID, think about that. These people during COVID, they got crowds of people and protesters, right? During COVID when they could actually have been killed by COVID. It's similar in that they said, enough is enough," Finnie said.
He added that the Freedom Riders represent a teachable moment about seeking and affecting change.
"The idea of protest to make the change is still in place. You see it with the abortion rights people now. You see it in other areas of our lives. So protesting for the wrongs in the world is something that connects all of us," Finnie said.
When asked if the title "The Buses Are Coming" is a suggestion that perhaps help is on the way, Finnie instead offered a broader question that he hopes visitors will respond to as they experience the exhibition: "What would you ride for?"
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