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KNOXVILLE — Jayanni Webster, a junior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will be part of the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, which will retrace the 1961 civil rights bus rides.

Webster, of Memphis, is a graduate of Wooddale High School.

PBS’ “American Experience” today announced that Webster and thirty-nine other college students from around the U.S. have been selected for the ride. Nearly 1,000 students nationwide applied; the forty selected were chosen based, in part, on their social media and civic engagement involvement.

The Student Freedom Ride will mark the 50th anniversary of the May 1961 Freedom Rides and will coincide with the airing of “Freedom Riders,” a film directed by Stanley Nelson, that premieres on “American Experience” at 9 p.m. on May 16.

The original Freedom Riders — some 430 black and white men and women, mostly students — rode interstate buses in the South to challenge local laws or customs that enforced segregation. The Freedom Rides raised the credibility of the American Civil Rights Movement and focused national attention on the violent disregard for anti-segregation laws in the South. Riders were arrested for trespassing, unlawful assembly and violating state and local Jim Crow laws, along with other alleged offenses. The Riders met the violence they encountered with their own nonviolent tactics, which eventually spurred the Kennedy administration to take action.

Webster and the Student Freedom Riders will begin their ten-day bus trip on May 6 in Washington, D.C., and visit historically significant locations around the South, ending in New Orleans on May 16. They will be accompanied by some of the original Freedom Riders.

Webster said her interest in social justice issues was sparked by the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, which operated a curriculum in her high school. She learned about historical events, such as the Freedom Rides, and teachers encouraged the students to “not let history repeat itself” and “to stand up where you see injustice.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting some of the original Freedom Riders, like James Lawson. He lived in Memphis in the 1960s, and I grew up hearing about him,” she said. Lawson trained many of the leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and was expelled from Vanderbilt University as a result of his actions — an act the university apologized for during its 2006 graduation ceremony; Lawson later became a faculty member at Vanderbilt. It was Lawson who invited Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis to talk to striking sanitation workers in 1968. That’s where King delivered his famed “Mountaintop” speech the day before his assassination.

Webster has crafted her own major through the College Scholars program. Her interests include education and society, particularly education policy and school-based programs focusing on issues like violence prevention, peace, leadership, and cultural education. Her specialization is in post-conflict education in Africa.

Webster became particularly interested in African education after she got involved in UT’s Jazz for Justice, a group started by religious studies professor Rosalind Hackett in 2006 to raise awareness about the war and subsequent cease-fire in northern Uganda.

During the spring and summer of 2010, Webster conducted research in northern Uganda.

She plans to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship and an Inside Collaborative Peace Fellowship, both of which would take her to Africa to do research and work with non-governmental organizations in peace-building, development and education.

Webster also is considering going to graduate school or working for a refugee resettlement agency in the United States.


Amy Blakely, (865-974-5034,