It is a very different nation that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides this month. The "colored" and "white" waiting room signs are gone, along with the insistence that blacks be treated as second-class citizens, unworthy of equal rights. That fact is not lost on John Lewis, now a U.S. congressman from Georgia. Fifty years ago, he faced mob fury, brutal beatings and the threat of death just to use the same services and public facilities as his white peers throughout the South.
In May 1961, Lewis was a 22-year-old student at Nashville's American Baptist Theological Seminary when he and other college students decided to take a stand that would make history. In a bold move, the Congress of Racial Equality — the civil-rights organization founded two decades earlier to fight segregation with nonviolent resistance — sent small teams of black and white Americans, Jews and Christians, young and old, via Greyhound and Trailways buses from Washington, D.C., into the Deep South. Their mission: to test the enforcement of federal desegregation laws.
"An education is important and I hope to get one," wrote Lewis in his application for the Freedom Rides. "But right now, freedom is the most important thing in my life. That justice and freedom might come to the Deep South."
A year earlier, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling had made it illegal to discriminate against passengers in interstate travel. But segregated conditions remained in Southern cities, from Nashville all the way to the Gulf. When state and local governments made it clear they had no interest in enforcing integration, black college students and adult activists, and the whites who stood with them, made their move to challenge the status quo.
Their effect was inestimable. By the time the Freedom Rides ended in December 1961, more than 400 people had joined the protest that started with 13 people, including Lewis. A ruling that September by the Interstate Commerce Commission — a direct result of the rides — put a stop to long-held practices that kept blacks and whites separate. The Freedom Rides marked the first time black and white Americans joined forces en masse to protest racist conditions.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the widely reported violence that rained down on the peace-abiding Freedom Riders — vicious, vehement, and hostile beyond reason — pricked the conscience of the nation. For the first time, the Kennedy administration fully recognized the extremity of the South's entrenched institutional bigotry.
"This is a movement that depended on the moral courage of the individual Freedom Riders," says Ray Arsenault, the historian whose book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice has become required reading on the era. "They had the discipline of nonviolence and they were willing to die. The more the judicial system tried to intimidate them and make them abandon the rides, the more it solidified their commitment."
As a result, Arsenault says, "They became the shock troops of the movement. They were among the leaders in all the demonstrations and campaigns for the rest of the decade."
Nashville's Freedom Riders were no strangers to challenging business owners and city leaders. A year earlier, they had begun a successful campaign to protest segregated stores and businesses, starting with the lunch counters in what was then the city's booming downtown shopping district on Church Street.
Ernest "Rip" Patton Jr., now 71, was one of those protesters. In 1960, he was a student at Tennessee State University (then called Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial University), eager to make a change in his hometown.
"Nashville was one of the most Jim Crow cities in the South," the longtime Nashville resident recalls today. "I can't think of anything that wasn't segregated. There were signs even on the buses and in the downtown areas. You couldn't sit down at the lunch counter and eat. You couldn't even go in and order takeout in some of the places. The places that did have takeout, you had to eat it outside. At Harvey's department store, you had to take it outside."
Led by the Rev. James Lawson (whose activism ironically got him drummed out of divinity school at Vanderbilt) and ministers such as Kelly Miller Smith at First Baptist Church, Nashville residents held sit-ins, stand-ins and boycotts designed to hit merchants in their pocketbooks.One year, no one bought Easter outfits.
These were stepping stones toward larger actions — such as a campaign against segregated movie theaters, whose owners forced black patrons to walk in alleys to rear entrances and take seats in the balcony. "Alleys are for rats" was the protesters' slogan, recalls Pauline Knight-Ofosu, a Freedom Rider from Nashville now living in suburban Atlanta.
But with the increased organization and visibility of the protests came greater risks, and more direct confrontation with racist hostility. During one of those stand-ins, Knight-Ofosu remembers, a young white man spat on her.
"I asked him if he had a handkerchief," she says. "He looked at me kind of crazy, but it took away the hostility of the moment."
That was only an inkling of what the Freedom Riders would face on the road throughout the month of May 1961, as the rides got under way. The activism in Nashville prepared the students for what they all knew could be a life-ending journey.
Riders were trained in the basic principles of nonviolence. Courage, self-control and sacrifice were essential to their mission. Training sessions included role-playing where demonstrators jeered and yelled at one another to prepare for what they might encounter during their protests.
"We were ready when we left Nashville," remembers William Harbour, a participant in the Freedom Rides who now resides in Atlanta. "Rev. Lawson trained us. ... We had several weekends of training, plus training all the time. Some students couldn't take the cigarette burns or being spit on. We had church first. [For those who couldn't take it] you could run Xerox machines or put up posters," Harbour says.
"We had wonderful, wonderful preachers and they were all versed. Jesus the Christ was our model and of course, Mahatma Gandhi," Knight-Ofosu says. "The whole thing was to have our hearts straight. To fix our minds on love and peace and let everybody know that we're all God's children. We were making it known that we were dissatisfied with the conditions; that it was not OK to treat us like we were so subservient or less than equal or not citizens of America."
The rides were executed with purpose and precision. Small mixed-race groups of riders would purchase tickets on regular bus routes and board with other passengers. White team members would sit in the rear, and the black riders would attempt to sit in the front.
That usually resulted in arrests or beatings — though at first, the riders encountered only minor resistance as they passed through Virginia and North Carolina. That changed once the bus carrying John Lewis pulled into Rock Hill, S.C. When buses reached the station, riders went inside the terminal to test the existence of segregated waiting and dining areas. As Lewis tried to enter, a group of white hoodlums and their Klansman ringleader attacked him and the white fellow rider, Albert Bigelow, who accompanied him.
There would be worse. On May 14 — Mother's Day, a Sunday — a white mob descended on a Greyhound bus traveling through Anniston, Ala. After bringing the bus to a stop by flattening its tires, enraged whites firebombed the vehicle, sending the riders inside fleeing for their lives. That same day, an angry mob attacked riders on a Trailways bus in Birmingham, while police agreed to do nothing for 15 minutes.
When the first bus of Nashville riders made it to Birmingham, they were arrested for entering the white waiting room inside the terminal, Harbour says. Scared and utterly on their own, the riders were taken out of jail in the middle of the night and driven to the Alabama state line, where they were dropped off to fend for themselves. They found shelter near the railroad tracks, in the home of a black couple. The next day, they made their way back to Nashville, but not before vowing to return to Alabama to challenge Birmingham "commissioner of public safety" Eugene "Bull" Connor and his Klan-infiltrated police force.
The violence led CORE to call off the rides. But students at Nashville's historically black colleges and universities had a different idea.
Led by Diane Nash, a fearless Fisk University coed, the students insisted on continuing, against the advice of older civil rights leaders who felt it was too dangerous. But quitting was not an option, remembers Harbour, then a student at Tennessee State University.
"We met all night long and all the next day," he says. "We probably had 300 or 400 students who wanted to go. But the selection was made, and I was selected to go. No. 1, I was from Alabama and knew the territory."
Nashville native John Seigenthaler, then an aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, begged the students to abandon the rides or face possible death. But Nash stood firm — a moment Seigenthaler recounted almost 50 years later to documentarian Stanley Nelson.
"There's a pause," Seigenthaler remembers, "and she said, 'Sir, you should know we all signed our last wills and testaments last night before they left. We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence. ...' That's virtually a direct quote of the words that came out of that child's mouth."
Despite that tension — or because of it — the riders formed strong bonds on their journeys, Harbour recalls. He speaks fondly of his seatmate, Jim Zwerg, a white exchange student from Wisconsin who was attending Fisk University at the time of the rides. Zwerg was present when the violence reached its zenith on the May 20 ride to Montgomery, Ala. There, in the chilling calm of a deserted bus terminal, rioting whites set upon the riders. Taylor Branch describes the scene in his civil rights history Parting the Waters:
"One of the men grabbed Zwerg's suitcase and smashed him in the face with it. Others slugged him to the ground, and when he was dazed beyond resistance, one man pinned Zwerg's head between his knees so that the others could take turns hitting him. As they steadily knocked out his teeth, and his face and chest were streaming blood, a few adults on the perimeter put their children on their shoulders to view the carnage."
Another victim of violence that day was John Seigenthaler. Present on the scene as part of his government duties, Seigenthaler stopped rioters from attacking a Freedom Rider named Susan Wilbur. Someone sapped him from behind with a pipe, leaving him to bleed in the street. The incident proved that no one, not even one of President Kennedy's own men, was safe from boiling blood down South.
Despite the violence they experienced, miraculously, none of the riders was killed. Yet once the riders made it to Mississippi, Knight-Ofosu, Patton and Harbour were among the more than 300 Freedom Riders jailed in the city of Jackson. The charge, ironically, was "breach of peace." Patton spent time in the city jail, and he was reunited with other riders later at the notorious Parchman facility, a state prison that housed death row inmates.
For most, the conditions at Parchman stood in stark contrast with the college campuses they left behind. The Freedom Riders were forced to strip naked and have their facial hair removed. Scores of roaches greeted the riders, as did stifling heat. They passed time singing freedom songs and studying nonviolence. Some managed to befriend jailers, who in turn smuggled ice cream to them in mop buckets, remembers Dr. Bernard LaFayette, a Freedom Rider who went on to serve as president of Nashville's American Baptist College.
The jailings didn't just take a toll on the riders. Mary Jean Smith, then a 19-year-old TSU student, informed her mother she would be joining the next round of Freedom Rides. She wound up spending 39 days in a hellhole at Parchman. Her mother's letters consoled her. "She was just herself in the letters, she was lighthearted," remembers Smith at her northwest Nashville home. "She never let on in the letters how distraught she was." When Smith was released, she returned to find her mother had lost 50 pounds from worry.
For all the hardships, the rides fueled the momentum of the civil rights movement. Larry F. Hunter was a student at Tennessee State University when he got involved in the Nashville student movement in 1960. A year later, he joined the Freedom Riders, and their spirit of determination traveled like fire.
"The summer of '61 was the breakout summer for Nashville," Hunter recalls. "We just broke that city wide open with protests. We picketed supermarkets, theaters. At that time there was such a feeling in the South of disobeying the law of the land. The toughest was a chain of food stores, H.G. Hill. This man had vowed he would never show equality toward black people in his hiring practices. There was a core group of us that used to walk picket lines for like 12 hours a day."
Yet for Knight-Ofosu and Harbour, who also spent several weeks in Parchman, the cost was high. They and other Tennessee State University students were expelled after their arrests. Pauline Knight-Ofosu successfully sued the university on behalf of all the students, who were reinstated later that year. In 2008, the state of Tennessee honored the TSU Freedom Riders with honorary degrees.
Fifty years later, as a new PBS documentary and reunions mark the anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Ernest "Rip" Patton is proud of the role Nashville students and adults played in the historic movement.
"I can go any place in Nashville that I want to," Patton says. "We have more blacks in city government now, and the city is home to a number of stars. Nashville is a very progressive town."
For John Lewis, his role as a Freedom Rider led him from the seminary to Congress, where the 72-year-old Georgia politician, now in his 12th term, plans to serve as long as the people in his district elect him. Retirement, he said, "is not in my DNA."
The world he and the Freedom Riders helped bring about never ceases to change. A few years ago, a man named Elwin Wilson traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet Lewis. Some five decades before, the former Klansman had encountered the congressman at a bus terminal in Rock Hill, S.C., and gave him the first of many beatings he would receive during the Freedom Rides. Wilson now wanted nothing more than to apologize, and be forgiven. They were reunited recently on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Last February, Lewis received America's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Possibly more important than the medal, though, was that it came from the country's first African-American president. Call it poetic justice — a destination hoped for one day, at the end of that long ride to freedom.
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