Remembering the Freedom Rides 50 years later
As the bus leaves Atlanta, Dennis Climpson is eager for conversation. He wants to talk about college football this Sunday morning, but I have a question for him. “Have you ever heard of the Freedom Rides?” I ask.
Fifty years ago next month, a group of 15 passengers travels the same route. Like us, they were blacks and whites sitting together on buses, then a violation of segregation laws. Climpson, 48, says he hasn’t heard of the protests, but he’s intrigued. As Interstate 20 passes by, he turns to his smartphone to check Wikipedia.
In 1961, Charles Person was 18 and the youngest of the Freedom Riders, who were traveling on two buses to New Orleans from Washington, D.C. The Georgia native still remembers crossing into Alabama that Mother’s Day. “There was tension. It was kind of eerie.”
Person expected to be harassed and roughed up as the group tested compliance with federal integration laws, but he didn’t imagine much worse. “This was broad daylight,” he says.
Later that day, members of the Ku Klux Klan would set fire to one bus and beat riders on the other with pipes, chains and bats. Over the next week, the world would watch as the Kennedy administration struggled to protect the protesters.
The racial violence shocked — and changed — America.
Today you can retrace the Freedom Rides easily by car or bus. The Alabama cities on the route are marking the anniversary with murals, exhibits and a new museum. It’s a leisurely tour of the Deep South, where you’ll find gracious hosts, good food and stark reminders of a not-so-distant past.
Climpson, who is bound for Jackson, Miss., to start a new truck-driving job, can’t believe what he’s reading on his phone.
“Anniston, Ala.?” he asks, pointing to the screen. “I thought that was a quiet town.”
Half a century ago, when the Greyhound bus carrying some of the Freedom Riders pulled into Anniston, in the foothills of the Appalachians, a crowd awaited. Klan members pummeled the vehicle and slashed its tires. It limped away 20 minutes later, and a convoy of cars followed. Six miles later, the bus stopped with a flat.
Bernard Emerson still lives on a hill overlooking the spot, which now bears a historic marker. Someone had tossed burning rags through a smashed bus window. “The smoke was getting pretty thick,” he recalls. “One lady was coming out of the window. She got her foot caught, and she was kind of hanging there.”
Anniston, a town of 23,000, has only recently acknowledged the incident, commissioning murals and detailed exhibit signs at its former bus stations, two blocks from the current stop. I took a layover for a few hours to look around and eventually found my way to a converted Woolworth’s, now a restaurant called Classic on Noble. Its Sunday brunch recalls a Southern country club buffet: more than 100 offerings, including fried green tomatoes, grits, shrimp salad, beef tenderloin and a dessert counter with 26 pies, cobblers and cakes. The after-church crowd is predominately white, but a few black guests feast too.
“We’re a nice town,” the hostess tells me. “We have a dark past, but we’ve overcome it.”
When the second bus reached Anniston in 1961, a pair of Klansmen boarded and beat the riders, causing permanent brain damage to one. The Klansmen warned them that worse awaited 60 miles down the road in Birmingham.
“They taunted us all the way,” Person says. Still, the wounded protesters stuck to their plan; when they arrived, they headed to the white waiting room in the Trailways bus station.
“The walls were surrounded by a group of men,” Person recalls. “As we got toward the center, they started coming toward us.”
Person, who had been trained to practice Gandhian nonviolence, was immediately set upon. “Everyone had a chance to punch me,” he says. His head was bashed with a pipe. Then a news photographer snapped a picture, distracting Person’s attackers. “I just walked out of my jacket,” he recalls. “I did not run. I was still under control.”
He stepped outside and boarded a city bus. The first Freedom Rides had ended, and Person had escaped with his life.
Birmingham’s Trailways station is gone, replaced by a Wells Fargo bank branch and a historic marker. It’s one of many civil rights sites in the state’s largest city. Visitors also come for the city’s music scene, which has produced a handful of “American Idol” finalists, and its restaurants, which regularly garner James Beard Foundation Award nominations.
Buses today arrive a few blocks from the city’s designated Civil Rights District. In Kelly Ingram Park, statues of snarling police dogs and water cannons recall the city’s violent struggles. The routes of protest marches are now walking tours, marked by signs throughout downtown.
At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, exhibits and newsreels bring the Freedom Riders’ story to life. There’s also the cell where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” outlining his rationale for nonviolent protest. A museum window overlooks the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls attending Sunday school died in a 1963 bomb blast. It too is open for tours.
After the Mother’s Day violence, a group of students in Nashville vowed to continue the Freedom Rides. “I didn’t have any kind of fear,” recalls Catherine Burks-Brooks, then a senior at Tennessee State University. “We felt it should go on.”
The protesters headed 200 miles south to Birmingham and were immediately jailed. After midnight, they were packed into a funeral home limousine for what they were told would be a trip home. The Birmingham native found herself sitting next to Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s notorious public safety commissioner. She chatted on the ride, at one point offering to make him breakfast when they got home.
Instead, he dumped the students in a small town on the Tennessee line in the middle of the night.
Burks-Brooks would not let Connor have the last word.
“Back then, we watched a lot of cowboy movies,” she recalls. “I told him I would meet him back in Birmingham by high noon.” It was 3 p.m. when she and her classmates returned by car to the city, taking back roads so they wouldn’t be stopped again.
After rendezvousing with other Freedom Riders, the group of by-now 22 students made its way to the Greyhound bus station, where an overnight standoff followed. Klan members dressed in robes patrolled the station, but this time police kept order. Still, no driver would take the students’ bus to the next stop, the state capital of Montgomery. After hours of negotiation, it was agreed that Alabama state troopers would ensure the protesters’ safety.
As the bus left Birmingham, it was surrounded by a convoy of police cars. A helicopter followed.
“I was feeling secure. I dozed off,” Burks-Brooks says.
On another morning this spring, I find myself in the same bus station to make the same trip. That’s where I meet accountant Julius Parker, 31, who tells me that he’s heard of the Freedom Rides; his grandparents marched in the ‘60s. But the Alabama native says the story baffles him. “To know the risk and go through with it anyway?” he asks. “I could not think with the last thought in my mind that I could do that.”
The two-hour ride to Montgomery passes quickly today, and like the riders half a century ago, I am lulled to sleep.
“Everything was quiet,” Burks-Brooks says. “It was almost like in a dream, rolling into Montgomery and not seeing anyone.”
When the bus reached the station, the riders stepped out onto the pavement.
“All of a sudden, these people appeared,” she says. “It looked like thousands. One thing that just stands out in my mind was to see those white women, some with babies in their arms, screaming at us.”
Men smashed soda crates across riders’ heads and tried to push a jagged pipe into one protester’s ear. That’s when the head of the Alabama state police, who had vowed to protect the riders, arrived. Furious that Montgomery’s police had betrayed him, he pulled out a gun and fired two shots in the air. The crowd drifted away.
Montgomery, like Birmingham, has developed civil rights sites for visitors. The former Greyhound station will open as a museum and welcome center in May. A few blocks away, the Rosa Parks Museum honors another famous bus rider.
Visitors can also tour the First Baptist Church where riders donned robes and hid in the choir balcony during a protest rally. Outside, several thousand whites gathered and threatened to burn down the building, by then packed with more than 1,000 African Americans.
“I don’t think anyone knew what was going to happen,” says Pastor E. Baxter Morris, who often shows visitors around the 144-year-old sanctuary.
One former Montgomery resident, King, spent much of the evening in the pastor’s study on a long series of phone calls with then-U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy. King was pressing for protection, which eventually led Alabama’s governor to reluctantly mobilize the National Guard.
Over the next few days, the students remained hidden in the home of a prominent black pharmacist. Although they were fighting for equality, the female riders washed and ironed everyone’s clothes. Vera McGill Harris, the pharmacist’s wife, now 88, remembers the group as well-mannered. “They knew how to behave themselves,” she says. “There was not any hanky-panky.”
Although the Harris house isn’t open to the public, it’s designated by a historic marker. You’ll find it three houses down from another Montgomery tourist attraction, the parsonage where King and his family once lived.
The modest home, decorated as it was in the ‘50s, was bombed with King’s wife and infant daughter inside. In the kitchen, visitors find a table where, years before the rides, King questioned his resolve.
Perhaps it’s a testimony to the movement King helped inspire that 50 years later, Climpson is astounded when he discovers how his bus trip to Mississippi is retracing history.
“I can’t think that it happened,” he says, still reading about the rides. “You would never believe people would do people like that.”
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