Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Historic Freedom RidesBy Lawayne Childrey | Published 21 May 2011 03:09pm |
This week people from throughout the country are gathering in Jackson to pay tribute to the brave American sons and daughters known as the Freedom Riders. MPB's Lawayne Childrey reports how their selfless acts helped pave the way for others to continue the road to civil Rights in America.
In the summer of 1961 more Than 300 anti segregation freedom riders arrived by bus, train and plane in Jackson Mississippi and were promptly arrested. Among those arrested was a 13 year old Jackson boy named Hezekiah Watkins.
"I came over to see what a freedom rider looked like, what a freedom rider talked like, dressed etc. I was just being nosy. And we ran to the Greyhound bus station and we made it there almost the same time the freedom riders was coming to integrate the white waiting room and Troy pushed me inside the white waiting room. And that's how I became a freedom rider."
The police pounced on the freedom riders as they walked towards the whites only waiting room. That particular group included nine Negro men, a white man and two Negro girls. Ernest Rip Patton a freedom rider from Nashville vividly recalls that day.
"Lacretia and I were arrested at the bus lunch counter. John Lewis made it as far as the white restroom and he was arrested in the restroom. And we were taken to the city jail. Ah, Captain Ray, we all remember Captain Ray, he arrested us and charged us with disorderly conduct but they had to drop the disorderly conduct because we were not disorderly and we were charged with breech of peace."
The buses carrying the freedom riders began in Washington D.C. and were suppose to end in New Orleans. One of their busses was fire bombed in Anniston Alabama. In other cities along the way they were beaten, stoned even shot at. By the time they reached Meridian the riders were under heavy military police guard. The graphic scenes which were shown and heard across the nation prompted Robert and Helen Singleton of Los Angeles to get involved.
"We were told that, you know, after we saw the busses burn that the only thing that was going to save the rides was for more people to come and join them."
So the Singletons, boarded a train to New Orleans where they studied the discipline of nonviolent protest. Once trained they boarded the Illinois Central bound for Jackson where they were promptly arrested for entering the stations white waiting room.
"So we were taken to the city jail, then to the county jail and we had a little five minute trial then taken to Parchman,"
They were taken to Parchman Prison because all of the jail space in Jackson was filled to capacity. During the four hour ride from Jackson to Parchman, Helen says she wasn't focused on the the racial hatred blacks had long endured or what was awaiting her at the prison. She said what consumed her thoughts the most was Mississippi's wasted potential.
"You have a great climate, you have beaches, you have lush scenery and all that but you have such a social system that most people find it untenable. And so the economy here was suffering I felt because of those issues."
The freedom riders spent nearly 40 days in Parchman. But Helen says it was time well spent because it showed them that they could successfully protest without being violent.
"And even though violence was inflicted upon many of us it didn't stop us. So the people in the south had been use to being able to just inflict violence on any people who rose up against the system and they would back down. I think the legacy of the freedom rides is that they showed those who would inflict violence that violence isn't going to work anymore."
Over the past 50 years the freedom riders have continued to teach us that change is possible. To the average African American in Mississippi in 1961, overthrowing Jim Crow laws of segregation must have seemed impossible. Few had ever been able to register to vote; many had been lynched. While segregation was not dismantled overnight by the Freedom Riders, their actions and sacrifice were not in vain. Lawayne Childrey MPB News.
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