When composer and UCLA instructor Diane White-Clayton was commissioned to create a new work for the sweeping “Music and Justice” concert being presented by UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music and the Lowell Milken Center for Music of the American Jewish Experience, she found inspiration by connecting the past with the present.

Her resulting choral piece, “Dear Freedom Rider,” which premieres Sunday, Feb. 26, is a deeply thoughtful composition that invites both audience and performers to reflect on the courage of people who, in 1961, staged nonviolent protests against segregated transportation in the South, often at the expense of their own freedom and physical safety.

“I like symbolism, and I knew there were 13 original Freedom Riders, so I conceived of a piece with 13 performers — 11 singers, a cellist and me on piano, creating a sort of cross-generational connection between those who came before and the things young social justice activists are still pushing for in the current cultural moment,” said White-Clayton, who directs the UCLA African American Ensemble.

White-Clayton is one of six contemporary composers — UCLA professor and multi-Grammy winner Arturo O’Farrill is another — who will premiere commissioned works as part of the “Music and Justice” concert. Their compositions will comprise the concert’s first half, followed by late jazz icon Dave Brubeck’s 1969 cantata “Gates of Justice,” performed by three of his sons.

The three-day program kicks off Sunday, Feb. 26, with a Royce Hall concert, followed on Feb. 27 by a public conference on campus exploring the themes of “Gates of Justice,” which Brubeck composed in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

The program will culminate with a special repeat concert in the community, at Holman United Methodist Church in the West Adams neighborhood, on Tuesday, Feb. 28.  

White-Clayton has long experience with sacred music as a composer and as director of the African American Music Ensemble, sometimes affectionately called the “gospel choir.”

Diane White-Clayton at piano, with students in background
David Esquivel/UCLA
White-Clayton rehearsing with students in UCLA’s Schoenberg Music Building.

For “Dear Freedom Rider,” she enlisted her student performers to help reach across time and space to create the lyrics, asking each to read articles and view videos about the Freedom Riders, then sit, reflect and write a letter to them.

“I was then going to take these letters and extract from them phrases, sentences or individual words that would make up the libretto,” she said. “What I did not estimate well was how hard it was going to be to pick and choose. They blessed me so much, just reading their hearts.”

Several themes emerged in the letters: gratitude, inspiration and awe at the bravery the Freedom Riders showed in their activism, and a desire to honor them for their experiences and sacrifices.

Even today, White-Clayton said, the Freedom Riders of the 1960s have a lot to teach us about hope and persistence.

Despite a Supreme Court ruling declaring segregation on interstate public transport unconstitutional, the practice persisted, especially in the South. So Freedom Riders, whose numbers would eventually grow into the hundreds, boarded trains and buses bound for Southern states in what would become a precursor to widespread nonviolent demonstrations challenging segregated spaces in later years. While the riders were frequently met with mob violence and incarceration, they largely succeeded — segregation was ultimately banned in waiting rooms at public bus and train terminals, and laws protecting riders’ right to sit anywhere on buses were in place by the end of 1961.

While working on the piece, White-Clayton shared part of her process on social media and was delighted to discover there were Freedom Riders living in her own Los Angeles community — including UCLA alumni Robert and Helen Singleton, both slated to attend the Royce Hall performance.

Early Freedom Rider Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely, a civil rights activist and artist, will join the Feb. 28 concert at Holman United Methodist Church, where she is a longtime member and poet laureate. Preacely, as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, participated in sit-ins, voter registration campaigns and marches, including the March on Washington, during the civil rights movement. She will perform her original poem “Just Leaving:1961,” with musical accompaniment by White-Clayton.

UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music
Diane White-Clayton and her students discuss writing and performing “Dear Freedom Rider.”