Anniversary of 1961 Freedom Rides

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Alumni of a historic 1961 bus ride for desegregation are gathering to relive their memories of the civil rights movement and the brutalities they suffered.

The "Freedom Rides'' are often credited with focusing the nation's attention on discrimination and violence against Southern Blacks, but many of the participants haven't seen each for decades.

"To go down those roads, to get on a Greyhound bus, just to relive this whole thing for a weekend is going to be very moving,'' said John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia.

Events marking the anniversary begin Thursday with a news conference by Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta in Washington. They conclude Saturday with a re-enactment of the Atlanta-to-Montgomery bus trip, which will include stops at the Greyhound terminal in Birmingham, Ala., and the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. joined the freedom riders.

Lewis and 12 other civil rights activists made up the original Freedom Riders, who left Washington May 4, 1961, aboard a Greyhound bus. Their 13-day itinerary of stops through the South included nonviolent protests at bus stations. By the end of the three weeks, about 300 protesters had joined the crusade.

Many of the protesters, Lewis among them, were brutally beaten at several stops in Alabama. During the journey, some called their families to wish them goodbye, fearing they'd never see them again.

"It was a very dangerous period,'' Lewis said. "The nation followed the drummer of the Freedom Rides, but at the same time, those of us who were participating didn't know what was going to happen the next day or the next stop.''

The riders saw no violence as they traveled through the Carolinas and Georgia. But when they entered Alabama, the trip became bloody.

A mob of 200 Whites set the bus on fire when it arrived in Anniston, Ala. The trip continued in another bus to Birmingham, where the riders were met by a mob that assaulted them with stones, baseball bats, lead pipes and chains.

Birmingham police arrested the riders, including Lewis, then dropped them off late at night across the Tennessee border.

The riders reorganized themselves and continued on to Montgomery, where they were met by the most violent opposition.

"I was kicked in the spine, thrown forward and felt a foot come down on my face,'' said Jim Zwerg, a retired White minister for United Church of Christ. "That's basically the last thing I remember until I woke up in a vehicle. I thought I was getting taken out to get lynched.''

The riders continued on to Mississippi where they were sentenced to 60 days in jail. They never reached their destination of New Orleans, but they achieved their objective. Later that year, Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce a 1960 Supreme Court ruling that segregation in interstate bus and rail travel was unconstitutional.

Greyhound Lines Inc. is sponsoring the commemoration. During the Atlanta events a replica of the 1954 bus from the original Freedom Rides will be on display.

"I think emotions will be quite high, but we still have a lot of work to do,'' said Catherine Burks Brooks, one of the protesters who is now a Birmingham school teacher. "There's no time to rest.''

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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