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Could the Freedom Riders make a difference against today’s racism?

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About this series

Sixty years ago Tuesday, the first Freedom Riders departed on their journey through the South to challenge segregated buses, bus terminals, lunch counters and other facilities associated with interstate travel. These activists would be confronted, often violently, by police and mobs of white citizens, drawing international attention to social inequity in what became a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. This year, the USA TODAY Network is examining the legacy of these trailblazers and how it informs our current moment.

It began in May.  

Blood on the soles of sneakers. Burning vehicles, arrests, calls for political change and cries for justice for those who had died while society looked the other way.  

Two lines formed facing each other, one armed with riot gear, the other with signs.   

The 1960s, or last year?

Charles Person remembers the first time he met racism. He was a child, and his innocence meant that it didn’t at first look scary. It was exciting. Beautiful lights in the backdrop of a pitch-black country night.

Charles Person one of the original 13 Freedom Riders poses for a photo on his front porch at his home in Atlanta, on Thursday, April 29, 2021.
Charles Person one of the original 13 Freedom Riders poses for a photo on his front porch at his home in Atlanta, on Thursday, April 29, 2021.
Joshua L. Jones, Athens Banner-Herald USA TODAY NETWORK

He was in the backseat of the car, returning home from a visit with relatives in the country when the riveting sight caught his eye through the window. 

In the front seat, Person’s father was shaking. 

 “I didn’t really understand it, but I knew it frightened my father,” Person said. “I had never seen my father afraid before.”

Just ahead: the Ku Klux Klan, moving in ghostly rows, flaming crosses and torches floating in the darkness. Person’s father pulled into a Black neighborhood nearby. They silently watched the caravan pass.

As a teen, Person would again find himself looking over the shoulder of the driver as a racist mob passed his vehicle. This time it would be in a Trailways bus where he and other Freedom Riders — white and Black, already bloodied from defending themselves against KKK members inside the bus — heard the pneumatic brakes squeal as the bus turned into the station in Birmingham, Alabama.

He remembers the noise, the chants of hate, as he stepped off the bus.

Barbara Lee is an activist in Staunton, Virginia.
Barbara Lee is an activist in Staunton, Virginia.
By Brad Zinn/The News Leader

That sound carries across time.

Retired activist Barbara Lee listened to the same sentiment on her TV in 2017. The Unite the Right Rally was happening less than an hour’s drive from her home in Staunton, Virginia.

“Blood and soil! You will not replace us!” protestors shouted, waving Confederate and Nazi flags, their faces lighted by torches. The same glow Person had watched in awe from his car 60 years ago.

Protest looks different today, though. Many of the protests in the summer of 2020 were organized on social media, out in public. These protests raged against a systemic racism still fresh, rejuvenating itself like a virus in the body of government created specifically to protect citizens, threatening Black lives and seeming to mock the political ground gained since the 1960s. It seems inescapable, hard to target. 

A far cry from the time of the Freedom Riders, where the enemy had a location that could be targeted and where protests could be planned, trained for and then driven straight to the source. 

Sixty years after Freedom Riders were driven into the American South with a distinct mission, has the time of such targeted protest passed?

‘Some people don’t think you’ll make it out of Alabama’ 

The Freedom Riders’ mission was to venture into the South using public transport to conduct a test. Would the deeply rooted racism that enabled segregation prevail, or the ultimate law of the land that had deemed it unconstitutional? 

The highest court in the country had drawn the line in two decisions. The first ruling came from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1947 in Morgan vs. Virginia, which had deemed that segregation on buses was unconstitutional. The second Supreme Court ruling of Boynton vs. Virginia went further to specify that segregation on interstate transportation services, including bus terminals, was unconstitutional as well.  

The rulings had little impact on the South. Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina were not just ignoring the fact that segregation was now illegal. They continued to enforce racial discrimination.  

That’s when the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, knew that something needed to change, and got the wheels turning.   

The Freedom Riders began with 13 members. Seven were Black. Six were white. Among them a former stockbroker, a retired civil rights activist, a college professor, a former Navy commander, a Black folk singer as well as students who studied in places as far away from the humid South as Arizona.

Person, born in 1942 and raised in Atlanta, studied at Morehouse College and ended up getting involved in the civil rights movement in the city. 

Freedom Riders Charles Person, right, and James Peck on the bus in 1961, with James Farmer, the head of CORE, in the background.
Freedom Riders Charles Person, right, and James Peck on the bus in 1961, with James Farmer, the head of CORE, in the background.
Johnson Publishing Company

The organization was looking for advocates with nonviolent backgrounds. Person was chosen.

Training for civil rights movements didn’t happen behind a desk. It was violent, demeaning and meant to push the members to their absolute limit, without letting them raise a finger to defend themselves.

Training meant cigarette burns, shoves to the floor, getting spit on and having food thrown at you. It was anything and everything CORE could think of that the riders could face and the drills could simulate. 

Not all the training prepared them for what happened, Person said.

Person said that aside from almost getting arrested for shining his shoes, the first part of the ride went smoothly. It wasn’t until the Freedom Riders arrived in Atlanta and met with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that there seemed to be an indication of violence ahead. 

During a dinner meeting with the riders, King warned them: "Some people don’t think you’ll make it out of Alabama."

The next day, they gathered to leave Atlanta. 

According to Person, the Freedom Riders would always use two buses to travel to prevent crowds from easily following people and tracking their movements. One was a Greyhound bus, and the other a Trailways bus. Person happened to be on the Trailways, the second bus that left for Alabama in the morning.   

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Charles Person, one of the original 13 Freedom Riders
We were thinking, 'Our friends were on that bus.' We had no way of knowing how bad they may have been injured.

Both were expected to pass through Anderson, Alabama, but when the Trailways bus pulled up to the station a few hours behind the Greyhound, the entire facility was shut down. The bus driver got off and spoke to a police officer standing guard, who informed the riders that the Greyhound bus that had come before them was set on fire, and passengers had been rushed to the hospital.

“We were thinking, 'Our friends were on that bus,'” Person said. “We had no way of knowing how bad they may have been injured.”

The Greyhound’s tires had been slashed at the station but that wasn’t the worst of the violence. A crowd broke the bus windows and threw in a firebomb as it headed onto the highway. The crowd held the bus door shut so passengers would not be able to escape.

Soon, Person and his group of Freedom Riders would face their own nightmare. After hearing the news of the Greyhound bus going up in flames, Person’s bus driver put his foot down. He was not going to move until Black passengers moved to the back of the bus, Person said.

The Freedom Riders didn’t budge.  

Person and his Riders had company. Eight Klansmen were on the bus as well, he said, and did not take kindly to passengers' refusal to move. The men began to physically shove and drag the Black Freedom Riders to the back of the bus.   

Chaos ensued when the white Freedom Riders stood up for the Black riders. Punches were thrown, ribs were stomped. Before he knew it, Person was slipping in pools of blood running across the bus floor.

After hours of taunting and jeers from the Klansmen who had forced them to the back of the bus, the Trailways arrived at the Birmingham Bus Station.  

A mob of people was there to meet them, armed with sticks, pipes, knives and guns. Some of Person’s group went down immediately in the outbreak of violence, but Person managed to get away, across the highway and to another bus, his head ringing from the blows and the shouts, blood pouring from his scalp into his eyes.

Top: Freedom Riders exit bus firebombed in Anniston, Alabama, by Ku Klux Klan-led mob on May 14, 1961. The riders were challenging segregations laws in the South. | Bottom: Arrested Freedom Riders in the back of a police van after their arrival at the Greyhound station in Birmingham, Alabama in May, 1961. Top: Freedom Riders exit bus firebombed in Anniston, Alabama, by Ku Klux Klan-led mob on May 14, 1961. The riders were challenging segregations laws in the South. | Bottom: Arrested Freedom Riders in the back of a police van after their arrival at the Greyhound station in Birmingham, Alabama in May, 1961. Left: Freedom Riders exit bus firebombed in Anniston, Alabama, by Ku Klux Klan-led mob on May 14, 1961. The riders were challenging segregations laws in the South. | Right: Arrested Freedom Riders in the back of a police van after their arrival at the Greyhound station in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1961. pbs.org | Alabama Department of Archives and History

Person still feels his injury to this day. After the attack in Birmingham, the wound on his head grew to the size of the fist and he was afraid that he might have a knife or ice pick fragment stuck in his skull. Thirty-five years later, he had the knot in his head removed once an MRI confirmed that there was nothing lodged inside. 

After the attack, he met with the rest of the battered Freedom Riders, who all voted to continue with the movement. After the incidents in Alabama, more demonstrators began to join.

First, they had to get to New Orleans. Person and other Freedom Riders were planning to go by riding the bus but no drivers in Birmingham would take them. Their only option was to fly back. They were able to get their tickets and arrived at the terminal, but problems began before the plane took off.

“There was a bomb threat,” Person said. 

He and other Freedom Riders were able to finally get out of Birmingham on a plane with the help of a representative from the Kennedy administration.  

Person was the youngest Freedom Rider and was recorded to have been one of the most savagely beaten in the Birmingham Bus Station riot.

The Birmingham attacks were just the beginning of the bloodshed. Hundreds of other Freedom Riders would go on to brave the South — white and Black riders, men and women. 

The mob that tried to kill her  

Looking back, Carol Ruth Silver said it doesn’t seem a coincidence she was recruited to become a Freedom Rider while she was on a bus. 

She was heading home from work. There were passengers sitting on both sides of her. Silver’s plans to go to law school took a detour when she heard an ad on the bus radio. 

“A deep voice came through the radio and said, ‘We need you to become a Freedom Rider and continue the Freedom Rides,’” Silver said.  

She looked to her left and right and asked, “Who is he talking to?”  

Part of her upbringing centered on individual responsibility to the community, she said. 

Silver had graduated from the University of Chicago in 1960 before moving to New York and working for the United Nations for a year. 

Within a week of hearing the advertisement on the bus, Silver had made arrangements with CORE, and had a ticket booked to Atlanta.

The Freedom Riders set a path to travel from there to Nashville.

Before Silver could step on the bus, though, she and the other Freedom Riders had to do something most 22-year-olds wouldn’t have to consider.

Carol Ruth Silver, a Freedom Rider
I had fear. And if you don't have fear in that kind of situation, you're not fully aware. It was a dangerous situation.

She had to write her will.

“I had fear. And if you don't have fear in that kind of situation, you're not fully aware,” Silver said. “It was a dangerous situation.”

The riders made it through Tennessee and crossed into Mississippi with a police force tailing the bus. They pulled into the bus station of Jackson where a mob of Klansmen was waiting. The six of them managed to get off the bus and tested the segregation put into place at the station. The Black Freedom Riders went into the whites-only arrival terminal, and the white Freedom Riders went into the Blacks-only terminal.  

In the end, all six were arrested and stuffed into the same police car, singing songs on the way to the police station.   

Silver ended up spending about 40 days in a Mississippi jail. 

Blood, sweat and fears 

The two Supreme Court cases that paved the way for the Freedom Riders started in Virginia. Diverse communities there are still seeing the resonance of racism today. 

Chanda McGuffin heard about the Freedom Riders movement first when she was 14 years old. She had been taking an English course at the University of Virginia, which was when she was first introduced to the movement.

“They rode buses down to the South to desegregate the South, but the entire country is segregated, and it’s legally segregated,” said McGuffin, the co-founder of RISE, an empowerment organization based in Waynesboro, Virginia. “So to redo the Freedom Riders movement, it wouldn’t happen because you have issues of the lack of equality and equity across the country. We’d have every single state.”

Barbara Lee can point to the biggest threat to racial justice today on a map — and it's the political hotbed of Georgia, she said.

Barbara Lee, of Staunton, Virginia, has experienced segregation in her hometown. She thinks that the U.S. has a long way to go when it comes to voting rights and suggests a modern-day Freedom Ride would be a way to raise awareness.
Barbara Lee, of Staunton, Virginia, has experienced segregation in her hometown. She thinks that the U.S. has a long way to go when it comes... Barbara Lee, of Staunton, Virginia, has experienced segregation in her hometown. She thinks that the U.S. has a long way to go when it comes to voting rights and suggests a modern-day Freedom Ride would be a way to raise awareness.
Ayano Nagaishi

If Lee had to revive the Freedom Riders movement today, she said she would target Atlanta, due to the turmoil around voting rights.

“If you're not voting, what is your purpose?” Lee said. “Don't just wait till the presidential election. ... The only voice you're going to have is at the ballot box.”

Person and Silver both saw nonviolent practice in protests trickle down into today’s advocacy culture. Person said modern protests still need to improve in order to reach their full potential.

For him, the Freedom Riders movement was about the simplicity of facing racism in the flesh and challenging laws that were written on paper, but not respected by people or authorities. 

He said even small actions they made in the Freedom Riders movement, like public announcements of specific actions and dress codes, helped organize the effort better and unite it against any opposition. Connection with the media are beneficial to advocacy groups as well, Person said. 

If a group has a unanimous sense of leadership and it can be conveyed to the public, that may bolster the cause.

Police reform and law enforcement changes would be a top priority for Person if he were to join the movement today. 

He noted that persistence is required.

Person stressed that it was important to appreciate what can be done in the future for change, one mile at a time — just like a very American mission on a highway bus.

Ayano Nagaishi (she/her) is the Social Justice Watchdog Reporter at The News Leader. Contact Ayano at anagaishi@newsleader.com and follow her on Twitter at @yanonaga98.

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