Freedom Riders 50 years later

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In May of 1961 groups of Blacks and Whites from across the country, many in their teens, boarded buses in Washington, D.C., bound for New Orleans to challenge the racial segregation still practiced in the Deep South.

They expected it would be dangerous, and they would be met with violence. How dangerous? Before they left, they wrote out their wills.

DutyBound
DUTY BOUND—Freedom Rider Winston Fuller tells Pittsburgh high school students he left a comfortable California life to be arrested in Alabama because he felt he had to help end segregation. (Photos by J.L. Martello)

Winston Fuller had seen how the first Freedom Ride ended—he watched a firebombed Greyhound bus burning in Alabama on TV, he told an audience of more than 200 Pittsburgh high school students during a 50th anniversary Black History Month presentation at the Heinz History Center Feb. 9. He was stunned.

“As a Southern California kid, I’d never seen anything like it,” he said. “I was appalled and angry. So when a friend of mine in the Congress Of Racial Equality asked if I wanted to go on a freedom ride. I immediately signed up.”

After few nights of training—don’t look anyone in the eye, how to protect yourself from crippling blows—he was on his way. He was part of a second wave of riders who left via train for Jackson, Miss.

“That was the one State that was most frightening to me,” he said.

When he and his nine White and four Black companions arrived at Jackson, they all went to the “colored” waiting room. When they refused to segregate themselves, they were arrested. Fuller was tried and sentenced to six months.

Joan Browning never made it to Mississippi, or even to Alabama, she was arrested and jailed in Albany, Ga. Ironically, she was only about 70 miles from where she’d lived as a child. The letters she wrote to her sister from the Albany jail are now part of the special collection at Emory University, where she later worked as the librarian.

Of the nine Freedom Riders on her trip, she was the only female.

“So when they segregated us, I was basically in solitary,” she said. “In my one letter I told my sister that the local Klan didn’t like me, that these White men think they have to ‘save me from myself.’”

In those days, both Fuller and Browning said their families and friends were dumbfounded by the choices they’d made.

“They were puzzled. They asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I told them to just watch the news,” said Fuller. “The segregation was astounding and insidious in its level of detail—what days and times Blacks could go to public parks, or to state fairs, drinking fountains, even the courts where they had separate Bibles for Blacks and Whites.

“Sure there’s still discrimination and racism today, but it’s light years removed from the way it was. We were part of that.”

Browning was the first in her family accepted to college. She was asked to leave after having gone to service at a Black church.

“Years later my one uncle told me the family had basically written me off,” she said. “But not my mother, she always supported me. She knew I was in the Albany jail because she’d seen it on television.”

It was church, more than anything that got Browning involved in the non-violent struggle for civil rights, especially the teachings of Rev. James Lawson. Lawson actually joined the presentation via live stream from the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Lawson was joined by Freedom Riders Jim Zwerg, Diane Nash and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ala. Lewis, who was attending seminary college at the time, read from his Freedom Ride application, “I know an education is important, but right now, human dignity is the most important thing in my life, that freedom might come to the Deep South.”

Asked if she thought today’s youth could “get on the bus” and mount protests in the face of such danger, Browning said she was unsure.

“I think one reason they don’t do what we did is they have all this debt at their age. When you’re deep in debt, you’re not free,” she said. “But then again look at the technology they have. Look at Egypt. They have amazing organizing tools. We had to do it face-to-face.”

Browning said the surviving freedom riders had planned their 50th reunion for May 4 in Washington, but there’s been a change.

“Oprah wanted to televise our anniversary and said she’d fly us all to Chicago. So, I guess I’m going to Chicago,” she said. “We’re supposed to tape on April 26. They’ll air it on the 4th.”

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