NEW ORLEANS - As the brass band played and the crowd cheered, the bus rolled into this city 50 years late, but right on time.
After 10 days, eight states, 19 cities and enough Freedom Songs to fill my head for the next 80 years, the 2011 Freedom Riders rolled into New Orleans after two groups set out on the same journey from Washington, D.C. a half-century earlier.
The original groups rolled through the South challenging Jim Crow, only to be beaten and brutalized by the KKK, their bus fire bombed and its members bloodied. They had to abandon their original route to New Orleans and instead called on hundreds of Freedom Riders from around the country to descend upon Mississippi to fill the jails in protest.
But on Monday evening, when that bus pulled into New Orleans, the journey was finally realized. This group, which included 40 college students and five original Freedom Riders, is the first and only group of Freedom Riders to ever make it to New Orleans.
It was a journey of more than 1,700 miles, but it was more than just a trip along old highways and country roads through towns steeped in movements of Civil Rights and civil wrongs, of desegregated lunch counters and museums -- this journey was one of laughter and many tears, of warm embraces and rude awakenings. It was also a journey into ourselves. A long look at who we are and where we have been. And thanks to these 40 great minds, it offered an encouraging look at where we might be headed.
These students were black, white, Hispanic and Asian, from Ivy League universities and Historically Black Colleges and Universities alike. And in their own ways, each and every one of them was open-minded and committed to social justice and equality. How many of us can say the same thing?
"I've been liberated," said Marshal Houston, a white college student from the University of Alabama. "I'm not going to settle for any oppressive system that denies love and liberation to other people no matter where they come from, no matter what they look like, what class or anything."
The 2011 Freedom Ride included five original riders: Robert and Helen Singleton, Joan Mulholland, Ernest "Rip" Patton and Charles Person, who at 18 years old was the youngest of the 1961 riders.
"Wow," said Helen Singleton, finally exhaling after the trip. "That's all I can say."
"The future is in good hands," chimed in Robert Singleton, her husband of 56 years, noting the commitment of their young counterparts.
Students like Collis Crews, a student rider from North Carolina A&T.
"I've been exposed to a lot of things that I always knew were going on but not at that light, some of the things that I've seen made me sick to my stomach, but now we have to keep pushing," Crews said. "The original freedom riders are done, and on this ride they have now passed this torch to us, the younger generation. Not just the student Freedom Riders," he said, "but our whole generation. There's still racism, sexism and all these other types of discrimination going on throughout the world and we have to do something to eliminate them."
Along the way we met and heard about so many unsung heroes -- the foot soldiers, the high school and college students, the many ministers and local activists who launched sit-ins where such acts could get you attacked or even killed.
There were Freedom Riders and so many others on the frontlines fighting, non-violently, for the rights of black Americans.
There was The Friendship Nine in Rock Hill, South Carolina; The Greensboro Four in Greensboro, North Carolina (pictured above) and countless others in once-segregated and violently repressive cities and towns that dot the Black Belt. They were beaten, arrested and even expelled from colleges and universities for joining the movement.
Jim Zwerg, one of the original Freedom Riders, who suffered a broken back and other serious injuries after a particularly brutal beating by the Klan in Montgomery, said that nonviolence was not just a tactic, but a way of life. As a white man in the movement, he bore the brunt of the violence delivered by the racists who called him a "nigger lover."
Zwerg represents the heart and soul of what these Freedom Riders stood for.
"I had accepted non-violence as a way of life," Zwerg said with tears in his eyes. "Once you embrace nonviolence the first person to be changed is you," he said. "And you look at that adversary as someone with potential. You can hate the hatred but not the person. You can hate the prejudice but not the person being prejudice."
Student Freedom Rider Lu-Ann Haukaas Lopez, from the University of Alaska said this of her journey: "Seeing these lives lived out before me, even just for the ten days, and the humility, and seeing the generous spirit that these original riders have, that has changed me more than anything."
Before this journey, I asked myself if I could have gotten on that bus. I doubted that I could. I didn't know if I would have had the courage to battle such hate with nonviolence. I guess what I was really questioning was whether or not I had the capacity to love those who had no such love for me.
I still don't know if I could have joined the Freedom Riders in 1961, when there was so much hate in the air. But I do know that the future is brighter because of the seeds planted along this journey of ours. The students are taking the lessons they learned back to their communities and college campuses. They now have a network that spreads across more than 30 states from Alaska to Alabama.
Perhaps there's still enough in all of us to recommit to making this world a better place.
It doesn't take a Freedom Ride to do it. Just courage.