The Freedom Riders boarded their first buses in Washington, D.C., in May of 1961. It was the height of Jim Crow, and the interracial group of activists ignored the forced segregation of bus terminals in protest as they journeyed through the upper South.
They faced violence throughout their journey, according to Britannica, and their bus was even fire bombed in Alabama. But eventually they found success, and the segregation of these spaces was outlawed.
Six decades later, former Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms shared the history of the Freedom Riders to an overflowing crowd at the Delaware State University undergraduate commencement ceremony.
Then, in her keynote speech, Bottoms compared the Freedom Riders to DSU’s women’s lacrosse team, whose bus was pulled over in Georgia and searched for drugs in what many have called racial profiling.
“Some may call it a stretch, but I dare say that each generation has its own cross to bear,” Bottoms said on Saturday morning. “The battle for equality is not the same in 2022 but it is still worth fighting for.”
She retold the incident that took place on her former state’s roadways, quoting the article that DSU sophomore lacrosse player Sydney Anderson “powerfully wrote” for the student-led Hornet Newspaper, published last week.
Bottoms described how the team was on its way back from a match in Florida on April 20 when their bus was stopped by Liberty County police officers, and how what started as a routine stop for an alleged traffic violation escalated into accusations of drug trafficking.
Backup and K-9 units were called in, according to student accounts, and officers spent over 20 minutes inspecting the team’s luggage and searching through players’ personal items. The Liberty County sheriff denied personal items were searched, despite video evidence.
Activists have drawn attention to the fact that all of the officers involved are white, while most of the student athletes are Black.
“It is my sincere hope that, like the Freedom Riders, you will use … your experiences to empower communities, knowing that today will make the lives of others better tomorrow,” Bottoms said.
Bottoms did not address the decision by DSU administration to not publicly address the incident until after Anderson’s article was published – a decision that “concerned” the Delaware NAACP, which “subscribes to the theorem that ‘justice delayed is justice denied,’ ” according to their statement.
“They’re reacting because it came out on the news,” said Ron D. Handy Sr., first vice president of the NAACP Bear Chapter. “They should have reacted when it happened.”
In a press conference Friday, DSU President Tony Allen took “full responsibility” for the decision to delay an announcement.
He told Delaware Online/The News Journal in an earlier interview that he held off on publicly commenting on the incident until the administration and student athletes “understood [their] legal recourse,” as well as all of the facts.
He did not elaborate on what remedies DSU would seek, but said the university planned to file a motion in the coming week.
Allen also said that a Freedom of Information Act request was submitted to the Liberty County Police Department for copies of the body camera footage for all officers involved in the traffic stop; as of now, only one officer’s body camera footage has been released.
The department was due to respond to the FOIA request by Thursday, Allen said. As of Friday, the university had not yet received a reply.
Delaware Attorney General Kathleen Jennings requested a review of the incident by the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday, stating in her letter that she is “deeply troubled” by what occurred — especially considering DSU’s designation as a historically Black university.
Jennings is not the only government figure in Delaware to speak out. U.S. Sen. Tom Carper and Gov. John Carney – both of whom spoke at the DSU graduation ceremony on Saturday – wore badges with messages of support for the lacrosse players. The badges also were attached to the chests of students, guests, faculty and other government officials in attendance.
Allen – who repeated his remarks about the traffic stop from his speech at Thursday’s graduate school commencement — did not wear one.
“We stand with you,” Carney said to the lacrosse team.
“We have your back,” Carper echoed.
Three members of the team were in the crowd, including senior captain Aniya Aiken. The search of Aiken’s bag on the bus — which included officers unwrapping a gift given to her — was a source of outrage for many after they read Anderson’s article.
“The most important battles … are often not the battles we choose,” Bottoms said as her speech came to a close. “But the ones that life chooses for us.”
Reporter Esteban Parra contributed to this story.
Send story tips or ideas to Hannah Edelman at email@example.com. For more reporting, follow them on Twitter at @h_edelman.