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May Mgbolu

UA junior May Mgbolu is one of 40 students from throughout the country retracing the route of the 1961 Freedom Riders. Mgbolu, whose parents emigrated from Nigeria, grew up in Tucson and first heard about the project as an intern with the Tucson YWCA. We spoke to her before the trip, which began on May 6 in Washington, D.C.; it ends on May 16 in New Orleans. The journey marks the ride's 50-year anniversary and the release of Freedom Riders, a PBS documentary that premieres this month. After the project, Mgbolu will work as a Roosevelt Institute fellow in Chicago, where she will focus on environmental justice and low-income communities. For more information on the ride, go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders.

How did you hear about the Freedom Riders project?

I've been involved with the YWCA for several years. Sarah Gonzalez (the YWCA's Racial Justice Program director) told me about this amazing opportunity. She said, "I wish I was in college still, because I'd go," and I said, "That's OK; I'll go." Then Maria Moore with the UA African American Student Affairs office put it on the (e-mail list) for a couple of weeks. I realized I needed to do this.

Are you from Tucson?

Yes. I went to high school at St. Gregory (College Preparatory School).

When did you get involved with the YWCA?

I first got involved during my senior year of high school in the Bright Futures Program. It's an all-girls program that provides education and leadership training. Then I was introduced to their Racial Justice Program, which teaches you to talk about those topics that don't get talked about in the classroom regarding race. Now I'm in the youth-advisory program, (with) Nuestra Voz as an ally. It's about building Latino-youth leadership and cross-mentor programs. As an example, we use slam poetry to show art as activism and help them find their voice. We've been working on a ... youth manifesto to show how everything going on around us impacts youth.

How did you apply for the Freedom Riders project?

I had to write a personal statement, and it was optional to make a video. I did a voiceover video comparing the Civil Rights Movement to what's going on in Arizona—how not only is there a new group that's being targeted, but all youth and all minority groups (are being targeted). At the end of the day, it's all our fight, and at the end of day, the Freedom Riders showed us it was all our fight in the 1960s.

Do you remember learning a lot about the Freedom Riders when you were in high school?

Absolutely none. When I went to St Greg's, learning about the Civil Rights Movement was always a touchy topic, maybe because I was the only black kid in the school. When it came down to the Civil Rights Movement, we'd compare Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X.

What are you looking forward to most about the ride?

I get to hear from the actual source. About 20 of the original Freedom Riders are going to be riding with us.

What's the itinerary?

We are going to retrace the original route. They never actually got to finish their trip. The goal was to get to New Orleans. They got to Mississippi, where they were incarcerated, and the bus was burned. That's what's so exciting: We get to go back and finish it 50 years later.

What do you expect to get out of it?

I know a lot of their mission was this whole nonviolence approach. I'm looking forward to having these one-on-one discussions and intergenerational discussions with them about that, and seeing how far we've come or how far we haven't come. ... We all have the same goal, but different tactics, yet we all have a common theme for social justice.

What are the common issues today?

Well, if you look at ethnic studies, a lot of people are saying that these kids are doing something wrong. I imagine that there were a lot of people who said the same thing about the Freedom Riders back then. I feel like the Freedom Riders provided the youth voice throughout the Freedom Ride. A lot of them ended up getting kicked out of school, and they were prepared to die for the cause. It always makes me question myself: "Would you do it?"

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