JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — Next year’s commemoration of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Rides is expected to dwarf any other tourism event the southern state has ever seen, organizers of the national gathering are telling state economic leaders.
President Barack Obama has been invited to attend the May 2011 remembrance, said Reuben Anderson, a former state Supreme Court justice and a member of the Mississippi board planning the 50th anniversary remembrance of the protest against segregated interstate bus travel.
Anderson spoke last week during the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual meeting in Jackson, where more than 1,000 economic development leaders gathered to discuss ways to reap benefits from the state’s musical and cultural heritage. That includes the civil rights struggle that once pitted Mississippi’s leaders against the U.S. government and other forces of change.
“This is part of Mississippi’s heritage and part of tourism and will be the largest event in Mississippi history,” Anderson said. ”(Freedom Rides) started the movement that changed the way people thought about circumstances in America.”
Jeanne Luckett, one of the event’s coordinators, told the council that national and international entertainers, writers and journalists who covered the civil rights movement are among those who will participate in the May 22-28, 2011, celebration. A detailed schedule will not be released for another few weeks, she said.
Nearly a half-century ago, a biracial group of civil rights activists boarded interstate buses to expose segregated travel that persisted throughout the South despite a Supreme Court ruling that outlawed it.
The protest was a project of the Congress of Racial Equality. The strategy was for blacks to sit in the front of the bus while whites stayed in the back. At stops, blacks would use white-only restrooms.
Traveling from Washington, D.C., into the Deep South, the group’s bus was stoned and firebombed, and many of the activists were attacked by racists in Alabama. When they arrived in Jackson, many of the riders were jailed at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman on a charge of breach of peace.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, is the 2011 event’s chairman. Thompson is Mississippi’s second black member in the U.S. Congress since a period after the end of the vindictive Reconstruction Era after 1861-65 U.S. Civil War ended in the 1870s.
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour will serve as the national host, Anderson said.
“Barbour will have an event at the Governor’s Mansion. That’s a lot different than Gov. (Ross) Barnett, who ‘hosted’ them last time,” Anderson said.
Of the approximately 300 Freedom Riders, 80 are now deceased, Anderson said.
Most of the discussion Thursday was about promoting the state’s musical heritage.
Both Barbour and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said it was important to leverage the state’s distinction as the birthplace of blues music and Elvis Presley and the home of the late country music star Jimmie Rodgers.
Barbour said Mississippi needs jobs for low-skilled workers, and the hospitality industry that results from tourism could fill that void.
“The hospitality industry can be led by music,” Barbour said. “That will bring hotels. That will bring restaurants. That will bring updated juke joints.”
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