The Freedom Riders

Article by Carole Hawkins for The Augusta Chronicle, May 8, 2011:

The bus that Charles Person was riding May 14, 1961, reached the last stop in Georgia before crossing the state line. A man, just before getting off, turned and said, “You … had it good here in Georgia. Just wait ’til you get to Alabama.”

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Charles Person, the youngest member of the original core group of 13 Freedom Riders who integrated interstate bus stations in the South during the civil rights movement, did not realize at the time that what he was doing was any more significant than sit-ins he took part in.  David Goldman/AP Photo

David Goldman/AP Photo
Charles Person, the youngest member of the original core group of 13 Freedom Riders who integrated interstate bus stations in the South during the civil rights movement, did not realize at the time that what he was doing was any more significant than sit-ins he took part in.
The bus would never make it through the next state.

Person was one of the Freedom Riders. History would remember the multiracial group of 13, who traveled through the Deep South integrating interstate bus stations, as the spark that ignited a movement of 450 others, eventually ending segregation at terminal waiting rooms and restaurants.

But on May 14, 1961, Person didn’t know that what he was doing would be any more significant than the lunch-counter sit-ins he had participated in as a college student in Atlanta.

Today, Person is riding a bus again, retracing the routes the Freedom Riders took 50 years ago. With him are a handful of other surviving Freedom Riders, civil rights leaders and 40 college students in an educational journey organized by the producers of PBS’ American Experience . The group will stop overnight in Augusta, just like the original ride that he took years 50 ago, though no special program is planned here.

The message Person wants to send is simple.

“I want the students to know that one person can make a difference,” he said. “Find something you feel passionate enough about that, if it causes you to lose your life, you feel you have not lived in vain.”

Person was 18 in 1961 and the youngest member of the original Freedom Riders. He was not a professional activist, just an average man who could put a face on the disparities blacks faced in the Jim Crow South.

The Atlanta native’s grandparents had left sharecropping for the city after a bountiful harvest still left them without enough money to escape debt. Person’s father worked two jobs, at wages that were half those received by whites. He died at 66, worn out and used up.

As a young man, Person was an A student who dreamed of becoming a nuclear engineer. He was pre-accepted by MIT, a school he couldn’t afford, but was turned down by the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University. The latter sent his rejection by express mail.

In those days, blacks lived segregated from whites, Person explained, and a college could tell an applicant’s race by his ZIP code or telephone prefix.

As a freshman at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, Person was active in the student movement, which integrated lunch counters in the city.

By the time he was accepted as a Freedom Rider, he was already trained and had served a 16-day jail sentence for nonviolent protest. Except for the activism, Person’s record was squeaky clean.

“I hadn’t even cut class,” he said.

The Freedom Riders intended to demonstrate that even though laws had been passed to end segregation, they weren’t being enforced in the South. The group of 13 left Washington on May 4 and passed through Virginia and the Carolinas with only minor incidents. Bus stations either ignored the riders, or temporarily took down the “whites only” signs, then put them back up.

On May 12, the Freedom Riders integrated both the Trailways and Greyhound terminals in Augusta.

“The only thing I remember was that it was uneventful,” Person said. “Being from Georgia, I was kind of proud that nothing did happen. I guess it was easier for them to let us go through than to inconvenience the passengers by shutting down.”

Two days later, Person would be with his half of the group on a Trailways bus entering the terminal in Anniston, Ala. The driver told the riders over the intercom that the Greyhound their friends were riding had been burned. He wasn’t going to move the bus another inch until the blacks changed seats.

Eight men — later identified as Ku Klux Klans members — boarded, punched the Freedom Riders and threw them to the back of the bus. The eight stayed on the bus to make sure it stayed segregated.

Upon arriving in Birmingham, the Klansmen left. Despite what had happened, group leader James Peck and Person got off and headed for the terminal, intending to integrate it.

“I thought after they segregated us on the bus, they weren’t going to do anything more to us. They had completed their goal,” Person said. “We didn’t know if the others on the Greyhound were alive or dead. We knew what had happened to them could happen to us. But still, we had a mission to accomplish.”

Inside, the waiting room was lined with men wearing khaki pants, as though in uniform. When the two Freedom Riders realized they were walking into a trap, Peck, who was white, reportedly said, “You’ll have to kill me before you hurt him.”

Peck took a beating that hospitalized him. Person was hit with a metal pipe. The wound left a knot on the back of his head for 30 years. Then, the gang beat others indiscriminantely.

Afterward, weary and without a bus driver willing to continue the trip, the Freedom Riders had to leave Alabama by plane.

Inspired by their example, 450 other people of various races would follow them with their own Freedom Rides, eventually prompting the federal government to enforce anti-segregation laws in terminals.

Most people would look back at the accomplishment proudly. Person’s thoughts wander instead to unfinished business.

He worries that too many black children today believe doing well in school is “acting white.” For people in his day, an equal education was something blacks fought for as a means of rising out of poverty and inequality.

He worries that, though blacks now have access to education, jobs still elude them. He wants black children to collect skills instead of resentments.

Person said he saw firsthand that nonviolence worked and changed people’s hearts. Racism is something, though, that is yet to be conquered, he said.

“We still live separately,” Person said. “I think there’s still a lot of bitterness, and I think it stems from the fact that we still don’t know each other.”

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