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.