Rajlakshmi De, in the footsteps of freedom

October 1, 2011
A passion for activism


A passion for activism: De with civil rights activist Bernard LaFayette, one of the original Freedom Riders.Marshall Houston

This past spring, Rajlakshmi De came across a Duke e-mail message mentioning the Student Freedom Ride, part of the Public Broadcasting System’s 2011 documentary film Freedom Riders. The event sought to re-create the 1961 integrated bus rides depicted in the film, when blacks and whites violated Jim Crow laws in hopes of desegregating buses in the South. Although De, a junior majoring in economics, had been searching for an internship in finance, she was intrigued.

“It really resonated with my thoughts about civic engagement and being involved in the community,” says De of the ride, a ten-day event starting in May that would trace the original Freedom Ride’s path from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. “When I applied, I talked a lot about my interests in women’s empowerment and how that is another form of what the Freedom Riders were about.”

De is no stranger to activism or leadership: She is a Baldwin Scholar; a writer for the Develle Dish, Duke’s blog on women’s rights; and a member of the Duke Partnership for Service, a campus volunteer group, and the Student Organization Finance Committee, which oversees the allocation of funds to various student groups. As one of the forty students from across the country selected for the Student Freedom Ride, she found herself surrounded by college students with a similar passion about activism and change. “We had this wide range of issues that in some ways are very modern and maybe very different than the civil rights movement,” she says. “But we had to figure out what links we could form and how we could learn from what people did fifty years ago.”

De was joined on the ride by Joan Mulholland ’60, one of many original Freedom Riders on the bus with the students. Mulholland spent a year at Duke during 1960, but dropped out, seeking greater involvement in the civil rights movement. She spent more than two months in jail following the 1961 rides before enrolling in a historically black school in Mississippi.

On the bus, De and the other riders created written and video posts for the PBS website, from which viewers could track their progress. The bus stopped at several sites pivotal to the civil rights movement, including the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro and Anniston, Alabama, the site of a famous bus-burning, where they heard original Freedom Riders recall the harrowing experience.

“One of my favorite parts was hearing the Riders sing their freedom songs,” says De. “They would make them up as they went, but they would have a lot of soul and passion. The words would be about freedom and justice and equality… and by the end, we could sing along with them, too. It was a huge privilege.”

Since the ride, De has taken an interest in development economics, which she hopes to study during a yearlong stay at the London School of Economics, beginning this fall.

“I’ve always cared about social justice, but what the experience has taught me is that I can’t ever turn my back on it,” she says. “I have enormous agency.… Hearing about what the original Riders sacrificed for what they believed in, it no longer makes any sense for me to be selfish with my career aspirations.”