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Santa Monica College Student to Join Present-Day Freedom Riders  

By Melonie Magruder
Lookout Staff

May 9, 2011 – In May of 1961, 13 civil rights activists and members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) – some African-American and some white – boarded buses in Washington D.C. bound for New Orleans, testing a recent Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination in interstate travel.

This month, 40 young activists from around the country will be retracing their route. One of them is Santa Monica College student, Carla Orendorff.

Fifty years ago, the passionate (mostly student) civil rights advocates were testing the strength of the courts in a non-violent demonstration for desegregation, by riding into hostile southern cities like Birmingham, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi, where they were met by mobs with cudgels, dragged off the buses and beaten senseless for daring to allow a black person to sit next to a white person.

This year’s group of riders is made up of students looking to launch a national conversation about the role of civic engagement in shaping our democracy.

But they probably won’t have to fear for their lives this time around. PBS “American Experience” Executive Producer Mark Samels, whose film “Freedom Riders” will debut May 16, will follow the students, chronicling this generation’s journey into our country’s racially divided history.

Orendorff is one of 40 students selected from some 1,000 applicants nationwide to take part in the modern day Freedom Ride.

Her mother is Bolivian and her father, who works at the Pentagon, is of Cherokee ancestry. He took his young daughter to demonstrations for indigenous rights and protested stereotypical imagery of Native Americans in professional sports.

“So I grew up interested in social justice and knowing that you have to speak up to fight injustice,” Orendorff told the Lookout while preparing to fly to Washington, D.C.

“Growing up, I was very aware of everyday struggles of poverty and discrimination. And I count myself privileged to grow up with that awareness,” she said.

Orendorff if a film, video and photography major at SMC, looking to produce documentaries that shed light on social injustice. She also mentors for ImMEDIAte Justice, a program that trains young women in media literacy and empowerment. And she just applied to transfer to UC Davis for a program called “Techno-Cultural Studies” to learn about how innovation and technology have change the social landscape of work, politics and sociology.

“I think my generation realizes that it has the power to affect change in ways that my parents’ generation and earlier never did,” Orendorff said. “We have Facebook and Twitter and share stories that the mainstream media doesn’t cover.

“Our grassroots, person-to-person way of communicating is how we do it now,” she said. “We are our greatest tools of justice.”

The American Experience tour will take the students on buses through Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, and to New Orleans.

Many of the original Freedom Riders will be joining the students, sharing their memories of the, at that time, bold and dangerous experiment in the fight for equal rights.

They will visit Montgomery’s historic First Baptist Church, where the original Freedom Riders, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and 1,500 others, were trapped by a mob until the Kennedy Administration called in federal marshals, marking a turning point in the civil rights movement.

Orendorff plans to film and write about it all.

“I’m a super civil rights geek,” Orendorff confessed. “My hero is Diane Nash (a Nashville student and original rider). She’s the model for ‘student activist’ and I get to ride with her on the bus.”

After Robert Kennedy arranged for an escort for the Freedom Riders to Montgomery, they were met by mobs. Greyhound bus drivers refused to carry Freedom Riders anywhere. Nash recruited 10 new students riders to go to Birmingham, where they were promptly arrested.

After weeks of howling violence across the south, with perhaps 450 different riders taking part, Kennedy forced the Interstate Commerce Commission to comply with a bus-desegregation ruling.

“Even when you don’t know what’s on the other side, you have to stand up for justice,” Orendorff said. “The Freedom Riders inspired me to ask, how do we make changes in our own backyard? What can I do today?”

PBS’ American Experience premiers “Freedom Riders” (in conjunction with the Ride) on Monday, May 16, 9 pm on PBS SoCal (formerly KOCE). More information is available at


“Growing up, I was very aware of everyday struggles of poverty and discrimination. And I count myself privileged to grow up with that awareness.” Carla Orendorff`

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