We are now six decades removed from the courageous travels the Freedom Riders took through the segregated South. On the evening of Tuesday, July 19, the Helen Marshall Cultural Center at Queens Borough Hall filled to honor Queens residents who participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides. The program, organized by Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, celebrated the crucial role these leaders played amongst other noteworthy institutions in the fight for equality during the Civil Rights movement.
The powerful history of the Freedom Riders was marked by those individuals stemming from all racial backgrounds who rode into the South to protest segregationist local public transit laws that were enacted in violation of a 1960 Supreme Court ruling declaring racial discrimination on buses to be illegal.
“The Deep South is often thought of as the epicenter of our nation’s long, arduous, and ongoing civil rights movement,” explained Borough President Richards. “But Queens, like so many other movements, has contributed greatly to the push for racial and social justice, as our local Freedom Riders displayed so courageously more than 60 years ago.” Richards has long been outspoken on themes related to the civil rights movement, and this event highlighted much of the borough president’s consistency on the subject. “The debt our nation owes the Freedom Riders and all those on the frontlines of the fight for equal rights can never be fully repaid,” said Richards.
The celebration showed gratitude to several Queens heroes who joined the Civil Rights movement in the South. These honorees included Freedom Riders Lew Zuchman, Bob Heller, Luvaghn Brown, and Paul Breines.
An event highlight was the appreciation shown to Rabbi Moshe Shur, a member of Khal Nachlas Yitzchak of Kew Gardens Hills and longtime director at the Queens College Hillel. Rabbi Shur, also known as the “Rockin’ Rabbi,” was a formative member of R’ Shlomo Carelbach’s Diaspora Yeshiva Band, who spent many years engrossed in activism across the South during the Civil Rights movement.
While attending Columbia, Rabbi Shur was the chairman of Summer Community Opportunity and Political Education and went with the organization to Atlanta, where he became its national chairman.
At just 21, Rabbi Shur encountered Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. While growing up, Rabbi Shur recalls being encouraged to assist “the underdog.” This was the premise for his prolonged important activities during the civil rights movement. Marching with King left a tremendous impact on Shur. It was King’s, followed by those of John and Robert Kennedy, which marked the first three funerals Shur ever experienced.
The era was difficult, and many, especially collegiate students, were unsure if they were making an impact, but overall, “Being a college student, it was the right thing to do at the time,” Shur said.
The celebration included a short video showcasing the Freedom Riders’ journey, including being subjected to mass arrests and beatings by both local police forces and white supremacist mobs. The event also featured an art installation by Charlotta Janssen with pieces inspired by the Freedom Riders, as well as a performance by Laurelton-based dance group ESOTA.
The celebration was cosponsored by Scan-Harbor, NAACP Jamaica Branch, Queens College, Queens Jewish Community Council (QJCC), the Brandeis Association, New York State Senators Leroy Comrie and James Sanders Jr., Assembly Members Alicia Hyndman, Khaleel Anderson, Andrew Hevesi, Daniel Rosenthal, and David Weprin, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, and Council Members Lynn Schulman and Nantasha Williams.
By Shabsie Saphirstein