‘The purpose was to fulfill our humanity’

The Freedom Riders didn’t just end segregation on interstate travel, they awakened the world to America’s racial problems. The social activism of the Freedom Riders inspired others to take action. (Produced by Ryon Horne and Angela Tuck/AJC)

Published May 3, 2011

Fifty years ago, in May of 1961, Americans hungry for change -- black and white, Jew and Christian. chose to confront segregation head on. Many were college students who were still teenagers and needed their parent’s permission to take part in the protests.

Their plan, conceived by the Congress of Racial Equality, was bold: Mixed-race teams would purchase tickets in Washington, D.C. and travel into the deep South on Greyhound and Trailways buses, defying segregated conditions that violated federal interstate travel laws. Along the way, the riders were met with intimidation, beatings and prison sentences.

Miraculously, no one died, and many survive today to speak about their experiences. Here, in their own words, some of the Atlantans who took part in the Freedom Rides share their recollections and reflections. Their statements have been edited for length and clarity.

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Bernard LaFayette Jr.

Then: A 20-year-old student at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville.

Now: Founder, LaFayette & Associates. Distinguished Senior Scholar-in-Residence, Emory University Candler School of Theology. Lives in Tuskegee, Ala. and Atlanta.

"We were dealing with conflicts in law. The conflicts between state law and states' rights and federal rights. It was not just about integration of buses. The question was whether or not state rights superceded federal rights. For example, the driver's license laws vary from state to state. That’s the reason Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t go on the Freedom Rides -- he was out on probation in Georgia because he had not changed his license in time when he moved from Alabama to Georgia. He was arrested and convicted and was serving a term in Reidsville prison until Sen. John Kennedy, who was running for president, made a call to the local judge. [Had King joined the Freedom Rides] he would have been in violation of his probation. The Freedom Riders' response was that we were all on probation. That was different. Our cases were on appeal, his wasn't. He had already been convicted. This is why it’s important for people to understand the nuances. That's where the [new] film fails; it leaves the wrong impression about Martin Luther King. There was no question about his commitment. In Montgomery his house was bombed ... and he had already been arrested. Why didn’t he go on the Freedom Rides? It was certainly not because he was afraid. "

William "Bill" Harbour

Then: A 19-year-old student at Tennessee State University.

Now: Retired from the United States Armed Forces Command, he lives in Atlanta.

"We were ready when we left Nashville [to join the Freedom Rides]. We had several weekends of training, plus we were training all the time -- any time we marched in Nashville. Some students couldn't take the cigarettes [burning them] and being spit on. [Violence] was in my mind several times, when they were beating on the ladies. But the problem is I would have messed it up for everyone else. This is a commitment you had to make.

"Jim Zwerg was a young white student from Wisconsin. He saw this sign on the board at his school one day: ‘Do you want to be an exchange student at a black university?' So he accepted and came to Fisk University. He and I did a lot of things together. We went to jail together eight to 10 times. He had a lot of problems too because of his family. His father was a medical doctor, his brother was a minister. Jim caught a lot of problems when he went on the Freedom Rides. The whites got beat up more than the blacks. If you look at the Freedom Riders, at least 50 percent were white. Even at that time you had young white students who were willing to help us out."

Pauline Knight-Ofosu

Then: A 20-year-old student at Tennessee State University.

Now: Retired from the Environmental Protection Agency, she lives in Rex.

"What we noticed when we were demonstrating in downtown Nashville was that there were so many people who wanted to participate in just living, just being able to go about being free and not working from sun to sun. When I was a little girl we saw people with shopping bags getting on the bus to go to work. In the evenings we'd see them coming back with shopping bags full of food or clothing that had been given to them by white folks. They didn't get money for work, they got paid in things. They would be promised 50 cents or a dollar but sometimes they got nothing.

"What got the attention of whites on every level was when they started to realize that [they weren't making as much money]. That didn't happen until the Freedom Rides and the sit-ins. I remember one year no one bought Easter outfits. We all wore khaki pants on Easter Sunday. We wanted Nashville to be inclusive of all of its citizens, not just some. For me -- and every Freedom Rider will have a different story -- we are called according to our understanding. God meets us where we are. I was at the point of begging for understanding and wanting to know where and how and what to do. I feel we were called for this purpose. We used to say in church, ‘I'll be somewhere listening for my name. And when he calls me I will answer.' "

Frank Holloway

Then: A 22-year-old student at Delaware State College.

Now: Retired from the Fulton-Atlanta Community Action Authority, he lives in Fayetteville.

"I took a break from [college] and came back to Atlanta. We were active in sit-ins and picketing against segregated facilities in Atlanta. The place that [Lester] Maddox owned -- the Pickrick restaurant -- that was the worst one. All of the restaurants eventually desegregated after the students continued to sit in and we closed them up. In fact, Atlanta was probably the best among the Southern cities [at not having violence].

"Me and another student, Harold Andrews, started our freedom ride at Greyhound bus station in Atlanta. We started by sitting in the restaurant. We sat there for a half-hour and they closed the restaurant, turned out the lights. One of the black guys that worked in the kitchen said he would serve us because no one else would. We found out we were the first blacks to be served at that restaurant."

In Montgomery, Holloway and Andrews' bus was met by a rioting mob. "When we got to Montgomery the city was in an uproar. They were burning cars and the streets were full of whites doing everything possible to tear things down. ... We came in on the bus and we found out the mob had been told there were two Freedom Riders coming from Atlanta on the Greyhound. The mob met us and of course they threatened us while we were on the bus. The bus pulled into the station and We got off [the bus] and went straight to the white waiting room. The manager told us to go to the black waiting room. We refused to go. The police were called in and we were arrested. We were only there for a couple of hours. We were sort of put out of the jail and [the police] said, 'You are on your own.' We were trying to get to the church where Martin Luther King Jr. and all of the other Freedom Riders were there to have a mass meeting. We were afraid of what would happen. Finally, We got a black cab driver -- and I give him credit for being a brave cab driver -- and he took us to [a meeting]. We drove through the mob.

"I didn't harbor any bitterness. I accepted Dr. King’s premise of nonviolence and that you don’t hate your enemies."

Charles Person

Then: A 18-year-old Morehouse College freshman.

Now: Retired electronics technician for Atlanta Public Schools, lives in Atlanta. Served in the U.S. Marine Corps. for 20 years.

"Every town we went in we had a mass meeting at night and those [church] members would provide us with lodging and food. And those people put out the best that they had. You couldn’t have had better accommodations at a five–star hotel."

"You had to have parental approval if you were under 21. I didn't quite tell my parents the truth. I told them I was going to Washington for training. I had an intermediary, Lonnie King, who was in charge of the student movement in Atlanta. He notified my parents that I was OK. They approved for me to continue to rest of the journey.

"I was beaten in Anniston and Birmingham, they took all of us in the front of the bus, they punched us and they physically threw us in the back. Mr. [Walter] Bergman was 61. He was stomped on. And Mr. James Peck got all the cuts and ended up getting 53 stitches. They stacked us in the back. That was in Anniston. I got medical care when I got to Birmingham. Rev. [Fred] Shuttlesworth had a nurse in his congregation and she had a special bandage to pull my wound together. When it sealed, there was no place for it to drain. I developed a large knot at the back of my skull."

Hank Thomas

Then: A 19-year-old sophomore at Howard University

Now: He and his wife own three McDonald’s restaurants in metro Atlanta and three Marriott hotels. He lives in Stone Mountain.

Most southern states just completely ignored the law. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) decided to force the issue with reference to the federal government doing something about the (interstate travel) law. They wanted volunteers, 13 people for the 13 colonies. I wasn’t picked originally, they wanted people over 21. My roommate got sick and I took his place. My roommate has never forgiven me for that! "We didn’t encounter any problems until we got to South Carolina -- then John Lewis [later a U.S. congressman] was beaten. I was arrested in the “whites only” men’s room. I was never booked into the jail. They delivered me -- took me out of jail at night -- to a Klan meeting. When I saw the Klan gathering at the bus station, I told the police it was pretty dangerous for me to get out. They forced me out at gunpoint. I was able to outrun them. I was in pretty good shape at that time. You know the saying ‘Feet don’t fail me now.' I had no idea where I was running to. A black minister who was president of the NAACP had been watching the police, and followed them. When they forced me out of the car, he drove up beside me and said, ‘Son, jump in!' He drove me to Columbia, S.C. Two weeks later I was on that bus that got burned in Anniston. When you are 19 years old, your brain isn’t fully developed."

Thomas says he forgives those who attacked the Freedom Riders: "I was a medic in Vietnam, and I was one of the first men to go to North Vietnam. I'm one of those people who is able to put things behind them and put things into perspective in terms of what mankind is capable of."

Larry F. Hunter

Then: A 19-year-old student at Tennessee State University.

Now: Lives in Atlanta, where he was born and raised.

"CORE told us once they had our trial that you had 40 days to make an appeal to get out of jail. Some people were held a little bit longer before they went to that kangaroo court. The trial was a farce. Mississippi got very smart and said we aren’t going to have these trials every day, they said we’ll space them out. A lot of people have forgotten the original sentence was 62 and 2/3 days for breach of peace if you didn't make bond. So CORE put up the bail money. The state of Mississippi tried to break the organization financially. So when the [bail] was returned, instead of mailing it back to CORE they mailed each person a check, figuring people would spend that money. But [CORE president] James Farmer made an appeal to us: When you get this check, put it in the mail and send it back.

" I’ve also had a different journey than most of my fellow riders. I could not pick up a gun for this country. So I applied for conscientious objection and was denied by my local board. I spent 10 years in exile away from this country in Canada. It was pretty cold, but I got used to it. There are some consequences that you suffer. After coming back to the United States, I applied for jobs at several places and was given exams and I did well on them. But once I volunteered the information [about the draft] I didn't get the jobs. To this day it’s taken a major toll, but I refuse to let it get me down. "

Julia Aaron Humbles

Then: An 18-year-old student at Southern University.

Now: Retired hospital worker; lives in Atlanta.

"We heard about [the Freedom Rides] and decided to join them in Washington. However, we demonstrated [in New Orleans] and got put in jail, so we weren’t able to start out with them as we originally had planned. Then after the [bus] burning in Anniston, we decided that we would join, that we would help complete the ride. They had started something and we had to make sure that it was completed."

Aaron Humbles was arrested with other Freedom Riders in Jackson, Miss. After listening to a lecture from a judge, Aaron Humbles spoke up. She received a 90-day sentence for contempt of court. "He was talking about the fact that they were justified in having arrested us and that they had done that so that the streets would not flow with our blood. That's the way they could justify the injustices, and there was no justice. And I said to him, ' That's not true. We are Americans, we are not outside agitators and we have a right to stand up for what we believe in. We are not going to listen to you. Because it's the law, but it's a law that is not made by man.' And I was talking when he was talking. I was 18 years old and you are just irreverent to anyone. I was a smart mouth (laughs)."

Rev. C.T. Vivian

Then: Pastor of Cosmopolitan Church in Nashville and a 36-year-old student at American Baptist Theological Seminary.

Now: Atlanta Civil rights activist, founder of the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute. Vivian died in 2020

"The movement in Nashville was started by ministers. And this is the thing: Without ... the church you can forget it, there wouldn’t have been a movement without the church. In every city we were in, ministerial leadership and people came out of the churches.

"I’m putting together a project right now, the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute. The point is, how do we educate? This is the next great movement. I never get lost in the past. Everything with me is what’s the problem now and how do we solve it? We are going backwards in education. We’ve come up with a method whereby we can produce ACT scholars at the highest level, and are doing it. We’ve got eight people on our overall staff that are working as volunteers. In Detroit we just sent a young woman to Princeton. .

“We cleared the way not for [young people] just to be able to play basketball or drink from fountains. We cleared the way for them to use the magnificence of their minds and their hearts and their passions and to be able to complete what they would like to do and become. This is what the movement was about. The purpose was to go to the next step. The purpose was to fulfill our humanity. The purpose was to give to a nation what it needs to continue to survive.”

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