John Lewis: ‘Our children … won’t see those signs’

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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)

Rep. John Lewis died Friday, July 17, at age 80. In this story from 2017, he talks about being with the Freedom Riders.

A 1946 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled segregated seating on interstate buses was unconstitutional.

In 1960, the justices ruled that segregation of transportation facilities – bus terminals, bathrooms and restaurants within the terminals – was unconstitutional.

So in the spring of 1961, a group of seven black and six white activists organized by the Congress of Racial Equality put the decisions to the test by riding Greyhound and Trailways buses from Washington D.C. through the Deep South. The Freedom Riders, as they were called, also planned to use "whites only" restrooms and sit at "whites only" lunch counters.

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More than 400 Freedom Riders conducted more than 60 rides from May to December of 1961.

“The Freedom Rides 50 years ago helped liberate the nation,” U.S. Rep. John Lewis said.

“Immediately what it did, it brought down those signs that were so humiliating,” Lewis said, referring to the “colored” and “white” signs that segregated the population. “And today … our children, our grandchildren won’t see those signs. The only place they will see those signs will be in a book, in a museum or on a video. They’re gone, and they will not return.”

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Lewis, who was an American Baptist Theological Seminary student in 1961, was one of the Freedom Riders beaten by a mob after arriving at a Montgomery, Ala., Greyhound bus station.

Almost 52 years later, Police Chief Kevin Murphy apologized to Lewis and offered him his badge in a gesture of reconciliation, telling the longtime Georgia congressman that Montgomery police had “enforced unjust laws” in failing to protect the Freedom Riders more than five decades ago.