- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - In 1961, the Freedom Riders embarked on a journey to change America as they resolved to ride buses from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans while testing how integrated Southern bus stations actually were.

Fifty-five years later, several surviving Freedom Riders returned to Montgomery’s Greyhound bus station - now the Freedom Rides Museum - that was central to the movement grabbing the nation’s attention.

At the 55th Anniversary Commemoration of the Freedom Rides on Friday morning, Charles Person and other Freedom Riders watched in a place of honor from the front row, a seat they fought for all those years ago.

“Today brought back a lot of memories,” Person said. “I’m especially happy to see the number of us who made it back. I think it’s not only good for us, but good for the city.”

Person, one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, never made it to Montgomery 55 years ago.

He and 12 other Freedom Riders set out from Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961, to test the de-segregation of interstate transportation facilities passed by Boynton v. Virginia. The goal: New Orleans.

And yet, the buses never made it to New Orleans just as Person never made it to Montgomery.

“We didn’t make it to Montgomery. What happened though, I think was fate, because as badly beaten as we were in Birmingham, I don’t think we could have survived the beating these kids were getting in Montgomery,” Person said.

On May 14, 1961, one of the buses experienced unconscionable levels of violence after reaching Anniston. The bus was firebombed. The passengers were beaten by Klansmen. Hours later, Person’s bus arrived in Anniston not fully aware of the danger lurking.

A few Klansmen had managed to get on the bus with Person and the other Freedom Riders when the bus was leaving Atlanta. Once the group arrived in Anniston, Person said the white supremacists “resegregated” them, beating the Freedom Riders unconscious before stacking them in the back of the bus where they felt Person and his group belonged.

“First we were beaten in Anniston. After the people were convinced we were resegregated, one of the eye-witnesses said they had us stacked like pancakes in the back of the bus,” Person said.

The group awoke in time for the bus’ next stop: Birmingham. Person, the designated “facilities tester,” once again had to face racial discrimination and hatred head-on.

Despite being confronted by yet another vicious mob wielding metal pipes and chains, he and colleague James Peck stepped off the bus. Their commitment to nonviolence left them badly beaten.

Looking back, Person called May 14, 1961, an “eventful day.”

“When we rode into Birmingham, we decided we were going to test the facilities, and the entire group of men in the waiting room attacked us, and my colleague that day, James Peck, ended up receiving 53 stitches for the wounds he received,” Person said. “I was allowed to walk away when, the one picture that was taken, they left me alone and attacked the photographer. It was an eventful day, but I think it set students everywhere to become participants because they came from all over.”

The movement continued as more and more civil rights activists - white and black - began Freedom Rides of their own.

The original Freedom Ride never made it to New Orleans, but that didn’t stop New Orleanians Jean Denton-Thompson, Betty Rosemond and Doratha Smith-Simmons from joining the movement. All three were members of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). All three were in attendance Friday and recalled their own life-threatening experiences during their quest for racial equality.

After Montgomery picked up the Freedom Rides’ torch, the city was engulfed in mob violence then expected to follow the buses’ routes through the Jim Crow South. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy became involved, however, and eventually the buses were allowed to continue to Jackson, Mississippi.

Then 19 years old, Denton-Thompson was on the first bus to leave Montgomery for Jackson after taking an integrated train north to Alabama’s capital. Denton-Thompson was also one of the many imprisoned in Jackson where a “fill the jails” movement would later arise.

In November of that year, Rosemond and Smith-Simmons embarked on separate Freedom Rides to parts of Mississippi, again with the intention of testing white facilities.

On one trip to McComb, Mississippi, Smith-Simmons and her crew were attacked after walking into the white bus terminal.

“I didn’t think I would live to be 19. I thought we would all die that day, because they were trying to kill us,” said Smith-Simmons who was in Montgomery for the first time Friday. “I’m grateful to be here today.”

Rosemond faced similar antagonism weeks earlier in Poplarville, Mississippi, where she only survived due to the kindness of a stranger willing to drive her 75 miles back to New Orleans.

“The bus driver pulled off and left me,” Rosemond said. “It was night. I was 21 years old, and I hid in a phone booth, because I saw a mob looking for me on the other side of the street. . (An elderly black man) pulled next to the phone booth and said, ‘Get in the truck.’”

Still, Rosemond said she would do it again if given the choice.

Rosemond, Denton-Thompson, Smith-Simmons, Person and a dozen other Freedom Riders watched the commemoration which featured Freedom Rider Dr. William Harbour, attorney Fred Gray, Mayor Todd Strange, Rep. John Knight and Judge Myron Thompson, the man responsible for saving the historic Greyhound station that now features the history it played witness to.

Fifty-five years after being beaten for the color of his skin, Person and his fellow Freedom Riders know the importance of their deeds. For the youth tasked with carrying their message of equality into the future, Person said to remember how progress was accomplished.

“I think it shows that you can make a difference and young people can change the world. Rather than use violence, if you use nonviolence, you see that you can effect positive change through an evil society such as segregation,” Person said.

___

Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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