CNN: Freedom Riders Inspires Arab Protest Leaders

(CNN) —

Joan Mulholland was watching television one day when something flashed across the screen that gave her chills.
Unarmed young men and women blocked rows of tanks. Giddy demonstrators placed flowers in soldier’s bayonets. Protesters sang “We Shall Overcome” — with an Arabic accent.

The images hurled the retired schoolteacher back to another moment in spring when she was a teenager risking her life for change. In May 1961, Mulholland joined the “Freedom Rides.” She was part of an interracial group of college students who were attacked by mobs and imprisoned simply because they decided to ride passenger buses together through the Deep South.

“So much of what has happened in Egypt is like déjà vu,” says Mulholland, who appears on PBS Monday at 9 p.m. in a mesmerizing documentary called “Freedom Riders.”

“The pictures that have been in the news have been almost interchangeable with the civil rights movement here years ago,” she says about the Egyptian protests that toppled a dictator. “I’ve seen so many visual parallels that I’m starting to save pictures in a scrapbook.”

The Freedom Riders were called communists and outside agitators. As they commemorate the 50th anniversary of their rides this month, another group of people in the Middle East is calling them something else — inspiration.
Several leaders in the protests sweeping the Middle East say they are using the same nonviolent playbook Freedom Riders and other civil rights activists used years ago to resist oppression.

Dalia Ziada, North Africa director of the American Islamic Congress, a group that promotes interfaith tolerance, says some Egyptian protesters took heart from the disciplined nonviolent resistance activists once displayed during civil rights campaigns like the Freedom Rides.

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