Borough president hosts celebration honoring 1961 Queens Freedom Riders

A short film showed the history of the Freedom Riders and how many from different race became allies in the fight for equality. (Photo by Adrian Childress)

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards on Tuesday, July 19, celebrated the work and accomplishments of Queens residents who took part in the 1961 Freedom Rides at Queens Borough Hall. The event was meant to celebrate the critical role these leaders as well as other institutions played in the fight for equality during the Civil Rights movement.

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards with Freedom Rider Lew Zuchman (Photo by Adrian Childress)

Among the Freedom Riders honored at the event were Lew Zuchman, Bob Heller, Luvaghn Brown and Paul Breines. Additionally, Rabbi Moshe Shur was recognized for devoting several years to activism across the southern United States during the civil rights movement.

“We are here because 61 years ago, 436 brave souls left their schools, houses of worship, homes, friends and families and decided they would risk their lives to change ours,” Richards said. “The Deep South is often thought of as the epicenter of our nation’s long, arduous and ongoing civil rights movement. 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. 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.”

Richards with Rabbi Moshe Shur (c.) and Assemblyman David Weprin (r.) (Photo by Adrian Childress)

The Freedom Riders were people from all kinds of racial backgrounds who rode to the southern United States to protest segregationist local public transit laws. These laws violated the 1960 Supreme Court ruling that declared racial discrimination on buses to be illegal. As they journeyed south the Freedom Riders were often subject to mass arrests and beatings from local police forces and white supremacist mobs.

Photo by Adrian Childress

A short video showcasing the history of the Freedom Riders was played at the event. Other features of the celebration included an art installation by artist Charlotta Janssen with pieces inspired by the Freedom Riders and a performance by Laurelton-based dance group ESOTA.

“Each of [the honorees] are truly a part of history,” New York City Councilwoman Selvina Brooks-Powers said. “It’s especially important in our current moments to take a page from our history books. Let us channel that vision and keep that fight alive. This is an ever going fight we must continue to be vigilant on.”

Manhattan Deputy Borough President Keisha Sutton-James (Photo courtesy of Adrian Childress)

This event was very personal for Manhattan Deputy Borough President Keisha Sutton-James. Her grandfather was one of the Freedom Riders. She received a proclamation honoring her grandfather’s work at the event.

“As a child I remember my grandfather going to the anniversaries,” Sutton-James said. “He was unusual in that he was 40 years old when he became a Freedom Rider. He was so terrified that when he stood to get off the bus, his legs wouldn’t support him because they were shaking so much. But the experience and his retelling of these stories to me have never left and the other thing I learned from it was that he was not fearless.”

SCAN Harbor Performing Arts (Photo by Adrian Childress)

Several organizations and state leaders came together to cosponsor this celebration. The organizations include SCAN-Harbor, NAACP Jamaica Branch, Queens College, the Queens Jewish Community Council and the Brandeis Association.

Among the state leaders who also sponsored this event are 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 Councilwomen Lynn Schulman and Nantasha Williams.