Charles Person took a beating when he was 18 in Anniston, Ala., the youngest of the Freedom Riders for civil rights in 1961. He took a blow to the head a few days later in Birmingham. The buses finally were integrated, life went on, and it wasn’t until last year, in the middle of a conversation with a relative, that he suddenly passed out.
Collateral damage, almost 56 years later, of that violent and committed summer. Hearing that President Obama, in one of his last days in the White House, designated that bus station as a national monument made Person “almost speechless,” he said the other day.
That designation, and the rhetoric between Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights warrior, and President-elect Donald Trump, has thrown into the current discourse on race a new reminder of the bloody struggles for equality, as the nation celebrates the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the eve of Trump’s swearing-in.
The history of the Freedom Riders often has been lost, Person said, and he is pleased that a new national monument will educate people, especially children.
“But it’s also a beacon for the future,” he said, “and that’s what I think is optimistic about this whole project.”
The Freedom Rides, headed by the Congress of Racial Equality in 1961, involved more than 400 demonstrators from across the country who volunteered to test the Supreme Court’s ruling, in Boynton v. Virginia, that found that segregation during interstate travel was unconstitutional. The Deep South largely ignored the ruling.
Blacks were forced to change seating on buses when they entered the region, and they were sent to separate and poorly kept “colored only” waiting areas, lunch counters and bathrooms.
The rides left Washington on May 4, 1961, headed for New Orleans. Hostile crowds met the buses at nearly every stop. In Anniston, the bus tires were punctured by one mob, while another waited down the road to throw an explosive on board and held the doors closed, trapping riders inside. Violence escalated in Montgomery, where among those assaulted and left for dead was a Justice Department mediator dispatched by President John F. Kennedy. By the time the rides entered Mississippi, participants were arrested and spent the summer in state prison.
A reluctant White House finally intervened publicly, and by fall, the Interstate Commerce Commission enforced the desegregation ruling. The “whites only” and “colored only” signs inside the terminals were removed.
The coordination of this movement, and the gains that followed, still stun historians. “No other group had ever won such a clear victory for civil rights,” said Raymond Arsenault, author of “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.”
“One of the most remarkable things about the Freedom Rides is that there were 436 riders and not a single incident of breaking the discipline,” he added. “It’s hard to think of anything more striking in American history than that.” The riders went through extensive training to test their resolve to remain nonviolent when attacked.
Even seemingly minor details were not overlooked. For the day of the rides, a dress code was implemented: women in dresses, skirts, and the men in sport coats. “They wanted to look like they had just come out of church or Sunday school,” Arsenault said.
On the eve of Friday’s inauguration of Trump as the country’s 45th president, and Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington, here are the reflections of four Freedom Riders on their historic campaign for social change and today’s activism:
“Kids knew something was going to happen to them, in most cases it was not going to be good . . . that was the magic of the movement. No one wanted to see it end until we had results.”
The Russians had launched Sputnik, demonstrating a technological and scientific supremacy over the United States, and Person, of Atlanta, was ready to answer the call for more American students to become scientists. Accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he thought he would also apply to nearby Georgia Tech, which was cheaper. But he couldn’t get in there; the university was not integrated. And that’s what galvanized him.
“When you do all the things your parents ask you to do, you’re a pretty good student and you’re denied, it’s hard for a child or a teenager to understand,” he said. He joined sit-ins in Atlanta and later was chosen for the rides.
“Change always begins with the young. As you get older you can rationalize things and can kind of live with them,” Person said. “But as a child or young person, you don’t have that rationalization, and you just want to see things change.”
Now 74, after a 20-year Marine Corps career and as an electronics technician for the Atlanta school district, he has been meeting with Black Lives Matters organizers. He’s been straightforward about where he thinks they’re going wrong.
“You don’t let anyone define your movement. You have to state who you are and what you’re about and what your goals are,” Person said. “You can’t just let anyone join your demonstration just to get numbers. Because if you don’t have control, you’ll have riots that break off from your march and cause problems for you, and also cause an identity problem for you.” That is what caused the riots in Ferguson, Mo., he said, after the death of Michael Brown in a police shooting in 2014.
During the Freedom Rides, he said, “we had marshals along the parade route who shared the agenda of the group. And they were there to make sure no one would go off and throw a firebomb or anything that was contrary to what you were trying to achieve.”
When his group arrived at a Trailways bus station in Birmingham on a sunny May day in 1961, a mob attacked as Person and others entered the station’s waiting room.
Person says he knows of only one photograph that survived that melee: “It’s a picture of me. You’ll see a guy in a blazer with a pipe. We figure he’s the one that gave the most damaging blow,” he said. “He’s the only one who had a weapon that could make my skull pop open the way it did.”
There’s that lingering damage — a CT scan found that there’s still damage to his skull, “which was kind of disturbing to me because I thought that was past me,” he said — but there is also lingering hope. He would like to have a cup of coffee with the person who attacked him in Birmingham. No one was charged.
“There’s no resentment,” Person said. He simply wants to know why. “I don’t have time to be hating anyone because I’ve adopted nonviolence as a way of life, not just a tactic.”
Catherine Burks Brooks:
“We were quite planned. You have to always keep in mind who we were. We were soldiers.”
By the time the rides came along, getting arrested for demonstrating was old hat to Catherine Burks Brooks of Birmingham. As a student at Tennessee State University, she had been participating in Nashville sit-ins at movie theaters and “pray-ins” at churches.
“We would go to white people’s church on Sunday,” she said, “and some would let us in and some wouldn’t.”
She joined up with the rides in Birmingham, and she remembers dozing off because the trip was so uneventful. The Kennedy administration had negotiated with Alabama’s governor to supply the riders with escorts on the ground and in the air. But law enforcement mysteriously dropped off when the bus made it to the Montgomery city limits, turning the riders over to an awaiting mob, which was ready with pipes, chains and baseball bats.
As they stepped off the bus, Burks Brooks said the image that remains with her to this day is that of the young white women in the crowd “with their babies in their arms, screaming: ‘Kill them niggers. Kill them niggers.’ ”
She views today’s protests, particularly over police shootings of black males, as part of a social-justice baton pass, noting that before the Freedom Rides, there was the coordination of the Great Migration, when black Americans moved in record numbers from the South to the North, and before that the building of the Underground Railroad.
“We didn’t start the movement,” said Burks Brooks, now 77, “and what the young people are doing now is just carrying on.”
A retired educator and Avon district sales manager, Burks Brooks continued her involvement with the civil rights movement after the rides, working on voter registration drives. She can understand the impatience she sees among some young activists today. “At a point you do get burned out. I would tell them that they are not going to complete their journey overnight. And to plan and to look at the situation different ways [in terms] of what they can do. They can do more than what we did.”
And she’s grateful for the protection the new monument will receive as a National Park Service site. In 2012, she said, a sign that noted the historic relevance of the bus station was burned shortly after it was installed.
“I knew we were going to get beaten and I bowed my head and I asked God to be with me and to give me the strength to remain nonviolent and to forgive them. I don’t know if I was even able to say Amen . . . I got grabbed.”
It was the dance craze “The Twist” that ushered Jim Zwerg of Gallup, N.M., into the civil rights movement. A student at Beloit College in Wisconsin, he enrolled in an exchange program at historically black Fisk University in Nashville. At a party there, “I was showing them what a poor twist dancer I was,” he said. “We were having such a good time and I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got time, why don’t we take in a movie this afternoon?’ ” That was when he learned that blacks and whites could not attend a movie together in Nashville. His involvement in efforts to desegregate local movie theaters led to his participation in the rides.
His seatmate on the bus was the spokesman for the effort to integrate the theaters, a 21-year-old named John Lewis. Both were among those badly beaten at the Montgomery bus station . Photos of Zwerg bloodied after the attack circulated around the world alongside headlines about the rides. Some argue that these photos in particular created the tipping point that forced the Kennedy administration to get publicly involved, or risk international embarrassment.
At 77, he remains adamant about the effectiveness of nonviolent organizing. “It’s ultimately the only way meaningful change takes place,” he said. In general, the Gandhian philosophy that was the template for civil rights demonstrating is missing in today’s movements, he said. “It could not be a technique like a light switch that you could turn on and off. Because if that’s the way you approached it, sooner or later you would encounter a situation where the violence became so intense that you would break, it literally had to change your life.”
Training in nonviolence, like letting one’s body go limp when being put under arrest, ran deeper than Zwerg realized at the time.
When he reflects on the assault, which cracked his vertebrae and left him unconscious, “when I was being beaten, I loved those people, I forgave those people.” A former minister, IBM personnel manager and hospice worker, Zwerg said he’s cheered by Obama designating the Anniston station a monument as one of his final acts as president.
"I think it’s excellent,” he said. The rides were “pivotal,” he said, in ending segregation.
Joan Trumpauer Mulholland:
“My generation, our job, is to have the back of the ones who are out there now.”
Out of her experience as a Freedom Rider, it is the memory of the rabbi who faithfully visited the jail that still moves her today. Joan Trumpauer Mulholland of Arlington, Va., joined the rides just in time for the fill-the-jails strategy in Mississippi. Volunteers from across the country began arriving in the South in waves and getting arrested, thus burdening the criminal justice system and bringing more focus to their cause. More than 300 riders were jailed that summer. Mulholland spent three months in jail, much of it at Mississippi’s Parchman Prison.
“We were down, we calculated, to less than three square feet of floor space for the prisoners in the white women’s cells,” she said. “That’s pretty crowded; that means you have to sleep underneath the bunks and things.”
Perry Nussbaum, a rabbi in the Jackson area, drove in weekly, like clockwork, to visit the riders, said Mulholland, 75. This was no small gesture during that time and place, she says, pointing out that his routine made him an easy target for the Ku Klux Klan members who probably were watching.
Nussbaum would ask riders to call out their jail cell numbers if they wanted him to pray with them, and Mulholland always took him up on the offer. “He would start praying in Hebrew and get a nice cadence going, and sort of lull the guards, and then he would slip in little tidbits of news, like what was happening in the world, and baseball scores and stuff. And then he’d slip back to Hebrew,” she said. He would also write to their parents letting them know how the riders were faring.
She also recalls an underground network of church women in Jackson who secretly collected money to help the imprisoned riders purchase necessities such as shower shoes and toiletries.
A few years later, there was the moment of kindness from a hairdresser in Jackson who walked Mulholland and other women over to her salon to give them a shampoo after patrons had covered the demonstrators with condiments and spray paint during a Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in in 1963.
“There were always people who were supporting you,” she said, “people to drive you down to the demonstrations and take you back . . . as crucial as those out there demonstrating, and usually more numerous.”
A retired teaching assistant for Arlington Public Schools, Mulholland hopes the new monument will remind Americans of the power in organizing for change.
“We’ve had a lot of negative things going on with hate and things resurfacing, bubbling up from the past,” she said, “but this shows change in a positive way, which is what we were about.”