The Greyhound bus lumbered to a stop at a row of tiny, brick homes, and a bespectacled, bow-legged man rose. He turned around and spoke into a microphone, addressing his young volunteers. His name is Ben Chaney. He is 51 years old and visibly discouraged. His lifelong dream has been -- and remains -- a tough sell.
In 1964, hundreds of volunteers, most of them white, came south to help blacks register to vote and give them a sense of hope. Some had their heads cracked with billy clubs. Others were knocked down by fire hoses. Still others went to jail on trumped-up charges.
Freedom Summer was a climactic episode of the civil rights movement. In Neshoba County, Miss., three of the volunteers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan on a lonely dirt road -- two white men from New York and a black man from Mississippi.
Though their deaths made international headlines, no one was ever convicted of killing them. The white men were named Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The black man was named James Chaney -- Ben Chaney's older brother.
Forty years later, Ben Chaney still wanted justice. He wanted the death of his brother to be relevant to a generation that never knew the indignity of drinking from a dirty water fountain with a sign above it that said "COLORED."
He saw a need: fewer black people voting, progress slowing, less passion. In 2000, 53.3 percent of the nation's black, voting-age population went to the polls.
"I saw a T-shirt in a national clothing chain, and it said, 'Voting is for old people,' " Chaney said. "And it ticked me off."
So he got involved. He procured a bus and enlisted volunteers. He envisioned hundreds, even a thousand people -- latter-day freedom riders spending two weeks registering southern blacks to vote.
He got about 50 people. They sometimes seemed unenthusiastic. They fought among themselves. But on a rainy summer day, there they were, arriving in the Washington Chapel neighborhood of Tuskegee, ready to persuade folks to claim a stake in the future.
One by one, they left the bus and followed Ben Chaney into the drizzle. But on this new Freedom Summer trip, three volunteers stayed seated. They had come to make a loud statement, to prove the protest movement was still kicking in a new century with new challenges.
But it was raining, after all. And they did not want to get wet.
Avenues for Change
In the 1960s, black people seeking equality had conflicting philosophies about how to achieve it. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolence. Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party urged blacks to use weapons to protect themselves from assaults inflicted by whites.
James Chaney chose the former.
On the summer night when Chaney died, he was in the car with Schwerner and Goodman. The three were going to Mount Zion United Methodist Church outside Philadelphia, Miss., to investigate a fire. They were stopped by Klansmen, beaten and shot to death.
The story rippled across the land, and the civil rights movement changed a bit.
After the killings, the Chaney family received death threats. Fannie Lee Chaney moved Ben and his three sisters to New York and enrolled Ben in private school, where, as a teenager, he tried to find his place in the movement that meant so much to his brother. He joined the Black Panther Party and abandoned nonviolent activism.
In 1970, when he was barely 18, Ben and a friend drove to Florida, and he said he did not learn until too late that the trip was to pick up a shipment of guns. An ensuing crime spree left three people dead and, though the details remain hazy, landed Chaney in prison with a life sentence. He was paroled 13 years later.
As the years passed, Ben Chaney could not let go of his brother and the movement that claimed his life. Seven Klansmen were convicted on federal civil rights violations in the case, but none served more than six years.
Now Chaney was seeing his dream come alive -- but hardly in the way he had imagined.
Sheryl Bauerschmidt held a gold-and-cream pillow to her nose to block the smell from the bus toilet. It had not been cleaned for three days, and an open ceiling vent did little to dissipate the stench.
Bauerschmidt, 29, who looks 10 years younger with her curly brown hair pulled atop her head, was having doubts about the tour.
As a white girl growing up in New Hampshire, where she saw few black faces, Bauerschmidt was fascinated by the struggle for equality. "In junior high, I would save my money and buy books about the civil rights movement. I couldn't find them in the library," she said.
Jared Story, a white 26-year-old from Johnsonville, Tenn., sat across the aisle from Bauerschmidt. Story, a soft-spoken redhead, was looking to the past for inspiration. "Right now, it's all history and education instead of action," he said.
Story met 19-year-old Ash-Lee Henderson the first day, and the two became inseparable. Henderson, a student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, says activism runs in the family; her mother, Tamara Henderson, was a Black Panther.
Sitting in the row of seats in front of Henderson and Story was Melva Florance, 29, a volunteer from Greensboro, N.C. When she was not smothering younger volunteers with hugs, she was giving advice on how to interact with people in low-income communities.
Chaney promoted the tour as a 20-bus caravan of more than 200 volunteers. In the end, a single coach and two recreational vehicles rolled across in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. From the start, Chaney's project was beset by complications. When he left New York on June 9, he had only $4,000 of the $40,000 he needed.
His conscripts were a multiracial mix of teenagers from Texas, California church members, New Yorkers expecting a vacation and college students from the South who wanted to learn about the civil rights movement.
On the day before the caravan was scheduled to embark, Chaney was still pondering whether to cancel the ride. But, he said, "I realized that it didn't take a lot of people to make a difference."
As the bus rolled south, Chaney saw the factions forming.
The New York volunteers rarely mingled with the four from the South. The nine Dallas teenagers wearing T-shirts reading "A Voteless People Is A Hopeless People" kept to themselves. They were intimidated by the New Yorkers. Arguments broke out.
At Heritage Square apartments in a low-rent district of Atlanta, the reality of latter-day apathy had made its mark on Nashawn Burrows, a black 14-year-old from Brooklyn with pierced ears, baggy shorts and his cap turned backward. He was walking door to door with other New Yorkers, trying to drum up some attention.
"We're freedom riders, and we're trying to register people to vote," they said.
Most residents would not open their doors. Those sitting outside their apartments were little better; voting, they said, was a waste of time. Menacingly, they told volunteers to move along. Burrows responded with expletives.
Later, at a youth hostel, things got worse. The Dallas group threw a water balloon at Jesus Figueroa, a 42-year-old Chumash Nation spirit runner who was on the tour. Burrows and Blackmore stormed in and demanded an apology. It ended when some of the older volunteers escorted Burrows and Blackmore out of the teenagers' room.
But Chaney had had enough. This was not his brother's Freedom Ride. This was chaos. That night, he assembled his volunteers and -- in his trademark monotone -- denounced the infighting. It was, he said, a "desecration to the memory of my brother, and Andrew and Mickey."
"We have to come together before we get to Alabama and Mississippi," he said, "or we'll be destroyed before we begin."
A Small Victory
The bus rolled on, and Chaney watched -- usually silently, usually from a distance.
In Tennessee came a high point. Story and Henderson, working as a team to register voters in a housing project, knocked on a door and found Alisa Caslin inside.
"I can't vote. I'm a convicted felon," said Caslin, a slender, 36-year-old black woman.
"Have you completed your probation and parole?" Henderson asked. Caslin nodded. "Then," said Henderson, "you can register."
Caslin chatted nervously as she filled out the registration form. "I feel good now," she said. "I count."
As they walked away, Henderson and Story grinned.
"That," Henderson said, "was worth all the 50 million noes we heard yesterday."
But by the time the bus crossed the Mississippi state line, morale was low. Folks were tired of eating pizza every night for dinner. They were tired of sleeping in seedy hotels. Conversation dried up after hours of bumps and the blur of passing scenery. The stereo played "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday's haunting song about lynchings in the South.
Finally, the prime destination appeared on the horizon -- Philadelphia, where Chaney's brother breathed his final breath. There, down a winding paved road, Mount Zion United Methodist Church sits atop a small hill -- the only place in the state where an annual memorial service is held for the three slain activists.
This year, hundreds crowded the sanctuary and surrounding grounds -- including the new generation of freedom riders. But they arrived late, and they could not get in. Chaney was enraged.
"I have always come to Mount Zion," Chaney said. "This is the first time I've felt like an outsider."
Then he left, his volunteers in tow, to register voters in town.
The road back to the northeast was quiet. There had been no violence, little true confrontation, a little progress. While in the 1960s they burned, today's counterparts did little more than simmer.
Still, the United States now had 552 new registered voters. And Ben Chaney -- brother, idealist, self-described hothead -- deemed the trip a success even though he was running a $29,000 deficit.
"We started a discussion about youth involvement," he said. "We're going to do this again next year."