It’s been 50 years now, but there are times when Charles Person still finds it hard to talk about the summer of 1961 without his voice breaking. The 68-year-old Atlanta man recalls the unfathomable hatred. The beatings. The constant reminders that blacks should stay in their place.
That summer, Person was a pioneer in what would come to be known as the Freedom Rides, an organized effort initiated by the Congress of Racial Equality to challenge the South’s segregation of passengers on interstate travel.
The months-long effort, seen as the first movement of its kind uniting blacks and whites from across the nation in a mass protest, would ultimately end segregated travel, but not without riots, bloodshed and arrests.
This month, the 50th anniversary of the rides will be marked by a new film, reunions and a re-enactment bycollege students. Person and other Atlantans who took part in the rides were college students themselves then. Today, among their number are ministers, academics, retirees and a businessman who owns restaurants and hotels in places that met him with violence 50 years ago. Most have made peace with the struggles they endured that summer, but their recollections are tinged with lingering pain.
“There are times I still have flashbacks and I’ll cry,” said Person, who harbors no hate for his attackers. “We need some reconciliation. When things happen nowadays they bring in psychologists. We never had that.”
Mobs and flames
Atlanta leaders were generally tolerant of the Freedom Riders. But most other stops on their route became battle zones.
Person, then an 18-year-old Morehouse College student, was among 13 Freedom Riders on the first buses to leave Washington, D.C., in early May. OnMothers Day, May 14, those buses arrived in Anniston, Ala., and Birmingham. Mobs in both cities attacked the buses.
In Anniston, a Greyhound bus was set on fire, the activists aboard barely escaping. Person, aboard a Trailways bus in Birmingham, watched as Walter Bergman and James Peck, two middle-aged white men in his group, were attacked and beaten when they came to the aid of black riders being forced to the rear.
Later that day, Bergman, Person and other riders were attacked and beaten again inside the bus terminal in Birmingham. Bergman would suffer a stroke that left him in a wheelchair the rest of his life. Person sustained a blow that left a large knot on the back of his head, a memento of the Freedom Rides he would carry with him for 35 years before finally having it removed.
Despite the hostilities those first activists endured, the ranks of the Freedom Riders would swell to more than 400 people before the bus rides ended, after the Kennedy administration convinced the Interstate Commerce Commission to effectively end segregation aboard interstate travel that September.
“The rides lasted long enough for people to see what was happening and have their consciousness raised to take action,” said Bernard LaFayette, a former Freedom Rider and distinguished senior scholar in residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. It also offered whites a way to participate en masse, he said.
The 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides holds a special lesson for young people, said John Seigenthaler, former administrative aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, whose work in Alabama involved the rides.
“What young people can learn today from the Freedom Riders is this: That despite what many people would judge to be their youth and immaturity, with resolve and with commitment they can right wrongs in this society.”
The rides have had other long-lasting effects, including spurring the political career of U.S. Rep. John Lewis. The Atlanta Democrat announced last week he would run again in 2012.
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