Freedom Riders, 50 years on, see today’s youths as disconnected from racism fight
By Krissah Thompson,
JACKSON, MISS. — A half-dozen blacks and whites sat with boxed sandwiches and sweet tea in a community center on a recent afternoon, wrestling with what’s changed — and what hasn’t — since the Freedom Riders came to town 50 years ago.
“We’re still trying to see each other as human,” said Albert Sykes, a 28-year-old black man. “We’re still struggling with this.”
On Mother’s Day, 1961, a bus full of young people was firebombed in Anniston, Ala. The passengers were black and white, one of several groups that rode from Washington, D.C., to force the integration of interstate transportation on a reluctant South.
In the following days, other Freedom Riders were arrested by segregationist city leaders here in Jackson and taken to the state penitentiary. Over the next four months, supporters from across the country descended on bus stations, train depots and airports across the South. One wave followed another, a total of 436 people who risked their lives to face down angry mobs and the volatile Ku Klux Klan.
Most of the legal barriers the Riders confronted toppled over in the next few years with the passage of federal civil rights laws — and the willingness of a generation of activists to subject themselves to fire hoses and axe handles. But other, worrisome legacies endure. Many schools have effectively re-segregated, and those who took risks to defeat segregation are disappointed that the current generation seems unwilling or unable to make similar sacrifices.
Sykes is helping organize one of the many tributes this spring to the Freedom Riders, reminders that it was teenagers and young adults who were beaten with broken baseball bats, chains and steel pipes as they attempted to enter “white only” waiting rooms at bus stations.
Some young people have been inspired by those stories. But in the minds of an older generation, they have not always seized the challenge as their elders did.
“It makes me want to push myself to do better in life and get out of my comfort zone to talk to people of different races,” said Iasia Collins, 17, at the luncheon hosted by Jackson 2000, a group that has been bringing whites and blacks together for more than two decades. “It makes me want to do that more. People died for that.”
But others who were gathered around the cafeteria tables with Collins blamed earlier generations for leaving them with few opportunities to interact. There are no movie theaters or shopping malls in the city — even a skateboard park that used to attract both black and white kids has shut down. Churches also tend to be either black or white.
Collins, who is black, and another young woman who is white were inspired by the conversation and exchanged phone numbers. “I’ll text you,” one of the white students promised Collins. But neither has sent a message.
Since 1960, Jackson’s population has been transformed from roughly one-third black to three-quarters black. City schools followed suit. The most integrated high school has a rostrum of 1,350 students, and only 13 are white. The steady climb to re-segregation began in 1970 with whites pulling their children out of school to avoid integration.
Anne Lovelady, a retired teacher who is black, spent her afternoon listening to the students, thinking they would try harder if they really understood the past. All of the documentaries, social studies lessons and talk of 50th anniversaries had not translated into an “emotional connection” to the movement, she said.
“We have protected them,” Lovelady said. “My aunts and grandmother, we heard them talk about it. We heard the emotion with which they talked about it. It gave me an appreciation for the sacrifice that my parents went through so that . . . I knew that I too had to make a sacrifice.”
The Freedom Riders have gone on to become social workers, software developers, teachers, preachers and shopkeepers. Two of them serve in Congress, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.).
One of the youngest of the riders, Hezekiah Watkins, is now 63 years old and lives across town from Lovelady in Jackson. He has found himself thinking the same thing when he looks at his 21-year-old daughter, Kristie. In recent weeks, as he has given interviews and speeches about his experience during the rides, he has juxtaposed his teenage years with hers.
“A lot of times, she feels as though somebody owes her. I’m always asking, ‘What are you owed and by whom?’ ” Watkins said. “I talked to all of my kids about the ’60s and what we went through. They’ll just look at me like, ‘It’s not relevant.’ My thing has always been this: You’re standing on a banana peel, and any given day you could slip.”
For Hank Thomas, who was 19 when he joined the Freedom Riders, the contrast between his experiences and those of young people today could not be more stark.
Fifty years ago, the sacrifice was unambiguous. Forcing integration on the South meant putting your body on the line. It meant buying a bus ticket down to Jackson after hearing about the bus firebombed in Anniston and the men and women beaten in Birmingham and Montgomery.
“You never knew what was going to happen,” Thomas said, remembering the anxiety of the times.
Thomas, a black businessman, lives outside Atlanta. He owns three McDonald’s franchises and three Marriott hotels. When he was in the first group of 13 riders, launched with little fanfare by the Congress of Racial Equity, they called themselves the “young eagles.” Thomas jokes now that they are the “bald eagles.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. considered that first ride a fool’s errand, and at one point he declined an invitation to board the bus with the students. The young felt haughty about going where the leader of the civil rights movement would not dare. Their protest, in retrospect, is credited with giving the nonviolent movement a template for future campaigns.
Now, Thomas is traveling to Jackson often to help plan this month’s big Freedom Rider reunion. He has been working with Lew Zuchman, a fellow Freedom Rider who runs a large nonprofit serving inner-city youths in New York.
Zuchman, who is white, and Thomas helped set the agenda for the reunion, which will include breakfast at the Governor’s Mansion, a tour of the penitentiary where they were held and a youth summit intended to inspire and challenge the next generation. Zuchman said he is frustrated at the lack of action by young adults to address present-day racism.
“Things are demonstrably worse for young blacks. It is still shocking to see the numbers of young black men that are in jail today,” Zuchman said. “We’ve got rid of some cosmetic issues that were important, but things haven’t changed that much.”
But for some families with a connection to the Freedom Riders, it appears things have changed.
Nineteen-year-old Austin Goetzman, who is white, says he has friends of both races at college. His black friends and his white friends dress alike, listen to the same music and have no second thoughts about dating across racial lines.
Fifty years ago, a relative of Goetzman’s was indicted for the role he played in the firebombing of the bus carrying Thomas and six other Freedom Riders. The bus had its tires slashed and windows broken by an angry white mob in Anniston.
Prosecutors said Jerome Couch, the father of Goetzman’s stepfather, Richard Couch, drove his car slowly in front of the disabled bus as it tried to flee town. The tires fell flat and the bus stalled. Then someone in the crowd lobbed a bundle of flaming rags through a window. Smoke filled the bus, and the riders were trapped. Minutes later, the sound of an exploding fuel tank scared the mob away, and the Riders were able to escape with only minor injuries.
Jerome Couch, who could not be reached for comment, was sentenced to one year of probation in 1962 after promising to sever his connections to the Klan.
It has only taken one generation to see real change, said Richard Couch, who practices law in Anniston but describes himself as a San Francisco liberal.
“You’ll see wide differences here between people who are 70 years old and 40 years old,” said Couch, who for years hasn’t spoken to his father, now 75. He said that the two have religious disagreements but that the older man’s views on race have moderated.
“That’s the clearest way to look at this petri dish,” he said, referring to the South five decades after the Freedom Rides. “Just let the air hit the dirty laundry, and that will clean it up. It’s dying if you’ll let it die.”
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.