When 17-year-old Aviva Nemeth opens her newspaper and reads stories of the recent police shootings, racial tension and protests emanating throughout the country, she sometimes feels powerless to speak out.
That's why, for her, Operation Understanding D.C. has become the vehicle through which she can broach the toughest conversations of today's world.
Twelve African-American and 12 Jewish students from areas in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Virginia stopped in Rock Hill on Tuesday to meet members of the Friendship Nine at the Five and Dine restaurant on East Main Street downtown.
"I realized that when I'd see the news, I would feel illiterate of understanding what I'm watching," said Nemeth. "It's important to become knowledgeable and create a dialogue with others to be able to provide solutions."
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The program is entering its 22nd year of bring rising high school seniors to loosely follow the trail of the Freedom Riders in the hope of promoting respect, understanding and cooperation in order to eradicate all forms of discrimination.
Amid national and regional protests questioning the health of race relations in America, Friendship Nine member David Williamson Jr. said the students were well-placed to learn from history.
The Friendship Nine was a group of African-American college students who gained national attention after they were jailed following a lunch counter protest at the former McCrory's store in Rock Hill on Jan. 31, 1961. Their defiance popularizing the strategy of "Jail, No Bail."
Williamson told the visiting students to work together across racial and socioeconomic divides to achieve common goals.
"You don't work for your goal or my goal, you work for the goals of everybody," said Williamson. "Forget about the color of a person's skin, just care about the character of the person inside and work from there."
Such a stand by the Friendship Nine resonated with 16-year-old Noah Dyson, who says he grew up with a father who was incarcerated. Dyson said he was surprised to see how the group was able to use the prison system to fight back against oppression.
The recent shooting deaths of two black men by police, and last week's ambush shooting of five police officers in Dallas have reignited uncomfortable conversations of race and social justice for many. But a variety of viewpoints has encouraged a tight-knit sense of community between the students, according to program director Avi Edelman.
Next the group is headed to Atlanta to visit speakers and visit a civil rights museum in the city. Group leaders say they try to make a balance of meeting with leaders from all faiths and ethnicities in order to foster a well-rounded education.
"All of these students, at one point, (have) been told that they are the leaders of the future," said Edelman. "But why wait for the future? They can be the leaders of right now and be the types of people we can arm with the strategies needed to make change."
Williamson was flanked by fellow Friendship Nine members Willie McCleod and W.T. Massey, who challenged the students to challenge the system and ask hard questions. McCleod said he has "no regrets" about his participation in the 1961 sit-in, which eventually led to the Freedom Riders movement.
Race relations have improved dramatically since then, according to Williamson, who pointed out the diverse crowd of high-school age kids in front of him. Working and learning among children of different color simply wasn't an option for him, he said.
"To see them so involved in what they're doing, they're trying hard to make connections with the past and the future," said Williamson. "If you don't know your history, it will repeat itself. If you're not involved in the situation, you can't solve it."
The convictions for the Friendship Nine were exonerated just last year, nearly 54 years after its members went to jail.
The students, who are in the middle of a 25-day journey throughout New York, Baltimore and the Deep South, will later take trips into Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee.
Edelman said meeting the Friendship Nine affords his students the chance to understand how youth can make small differences that elicit change.
"It's not always clear when you're creating a movement," said Nemeth. "This is a perfect example of how people our age are able to make a difference on their scale and the effects it can have."
About Operation Understanding D.C.
Mission statement: To build a generation of African American and Jewish community leaders who promote respect, understanding and cooperation while working to eradicate racism, anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination 24 - students in latest class of Operation Understanding D.C.
- 22 years Operation Understanding D.C. has sent a group of high school students throughout Baltimore, New York and Deep South
- Estimated 500 alumni who have directly participated in OUDC program
- Website: http://oudc.org/