by Zinie Chen Sampson
RICHMOND, Va. (AP)—Charles Reed Jr. skipped his college graduation ceremony to do something much more significant to him: retracing the original 1961 Freedom Ride and paying tribute to those who helped win the civil rights that his generation enjoys.
Reed says missing graduation doesn’t compare to the sacrifices the original Freedom Riders made when they challenged the South’s segregation laws: quitting jobs, dropping out of college, and ultimately, risking their lives.
“What the Freedom Rides did 50 years ago paved the way for what I have today as an African-American,” said Reed, a 21-year-old business administration major at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. Reed was one of 40 college students who joined a handful of the original Freedom Riders on an eight-day journey from Washington, D.C., through the South.
On May 6, the students pulled up in their bus to greet more than a dozen original Freedom Riders at the Newseum in Washington for the premiere of a new PBS documentary on the rides based on a book by Raymond Arsenault. The documentary recounts the rides state by state and how they pushed President John F. Kennedy to advocate for civil rights. As a young rider, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia said he “felt like a soldier in a nonviolent army,” though the rides were more confrontational than Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders would have preferred.
Congress of Racial Equality head James Farmer, six other Black people and six White people participated in the first Freedom Ride, which left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. The trip was to test whether southern states were implementing Boynton v. Virginia, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred segregation in public-transportation facilities. The trip carried riders through Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. The group faced violent attacks in the Deep South from White mobs who opposed integration. One of the buses was firebombed in Anniston, Ala., and the riders were beaten. A Ku Klux Klan mob attack in Birmingham, Ala., drew national headlines and international embarrassment for the Kennedy administration.
Lewis helped organize a subsequent ride that began in Nashville. But Lewis and others were beaten at a bus terminal in Montgomery, Ala., and federal marshals were called in after riders and supporters were surrounded by a mob at the First Baptist Church. Riders were later arrested in Mississippi. As news of the violence spread, hundreds joined the Freedom Rides. Hundreds were jailed that summer in Jackson, Miss., and transferred to the infamous Parchman state penitentiary after the local jail ran out of space. The demonstrations became a defining point in U.S. civil rights history.
Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland shared her scrapbook from 1961 with student riders. The 69-year-old Arlington, Va., resident said she wanted to pass on her ideas to the college students because her generation is “fading into a sunset, so to speak.”
Mulholland joined one of the 60 demonstrations after a colleague was arrested on the initial ride. She was arrested June 8, 1961, in Jackson, Miss., and spent about two weeks in the local jail, then the rest of the summer at Parchman. Prison warden Fred Jones wrote a letter to Mulholland’s mother, telling her that she could send medicine to her daughter. He also made a point to criticize her parenting skills.
“What I cannot understand is why as a mother you permitted a minor White girl to gang up with a bunch of negro bucks and White hoodlums to ramble over this country with the express purpose of violating the laws of certain states and attempting to incite acts of violence,” Jones wrote. The letter appears in photojournalist Eric Etheridge’s book “Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Freedom Riders.”
Lewis, who was knocked unconscious during the Montgomery attack and later jailed in Mississippi, said it’s important for students to learn that the Freedom Riders were willing to die to confront the “Whites only” and “Colored only” signs at transit stations to end segregation.
“We never gave in,” Lewis said. “We kept the faith, and it’s important for the stories to be told over and over again so future generations and especially these young people that are traveling will learn that in a matter of a short time, we brought down those signs.”