William Harbour, freedom rider and civil rights activist

William Harbour participated in the Nashville student movement for civil rights and the 1961 Freedom Rides to open up public transportation for Blacks. He was beaten and imprisoned for that.
Bita Honarvar bhonarvar@ajc.com
William Harbour participated in the Nashville student movement for civil rights and the 1961 Freedom Rides to open up public transportation for Blacks. He was beaten and imprisoned for that. Bita Honarvar bhonarvar@ajc.com

Credit: bhonarvar@ajc.com

Credit: bhonarvar@ajc.com

William Harbour began his civil rights activism in college, joining the 1961 Freedom Rides and ending up in the Parchman Farm prison with other activists.
Bita Honarvar bhonarvar@ajc.com
William Harbour began his civil rights activism in college, joining the 1961 Freedom Rides and ending up in the Parchman Farm prison with other activists. Bita Honarvar bhonarvar@ajc.com

Credit: bhonarvar@ajc.com

Credit: bhonarvar@ajc.com

When the first groups of Freedom Riders met with violence in Alabama in May of 1961, William “Bill” Harbour, then a student at what is now Tennessee State University, knew he and other Nashville student activists were uniquely qualified to continue.

Harbour had experienced staunch segregationists growing up in Piedmont, Alabama.

“We knew the territory,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2011.

He and fellow Nashville activists such as the late Congressman John Lewis and the late Rev. C.T. Vivian, also knew they were risking their lives on the Freedom Rides, a movement launched to test federal desegregation laws on Greyhound and Trailways buses.

Harbour, who remained active in the civil rights movement for most of his life, died Thursday in Atlanta after a long illness. He was 78.

Elizabeth Harbour McClain, of Nashville, said the family looked up to her oldest brother, with three siblings and, later, a son and nieces and nephews following him to Tennessee State. “I was a senior in high school when he was first in the sit-ins,” she said. “When I came to Nashville in 1961, … We were running the sit-ins and other activities in Nashville, while Bill, and John [Lewis] and the others were off in the Freedom Rides.”

Mississippi officials tried to stop the rides by arresting and jailing riders on a charge of “breach of the peace.” By the time the rides ended, more than 400 people of all races, ages and religions had joined them, and many, including Harbour, were jailed at the state’s notorious Parchman Farm prison. The standoff ended in late 1961 when the Interstate Commerce Commission outlawed segregation in interstate travel.

When Harbour and other TSU students were released, they learned Tennessee State had expelled them. They sued the state in 1962 and were allowed to continue. In 2008, the Tennessee Board of Regents awarded the expelled students honorary doctorate degrees. The alumni association has a scholarship in his name.

Harbour’s involvement in the Nashville Student Movement and Freedom Rides drew the attention of local segregationists, said McClain.

“My mom sent him a letter asking him not to come home,” she said. “Of course our parents were worried, and there were persons in the community that were worried for us. In fact, the doctor that delivered several of us, a white doctor named Dr. Wolfe, came to the house one day and, of course, I stood in the other room and listened. He said, ‘We know what’s going on with Bill. I just came to tell you that us good white folks in Piedmont are not going to let anything happened to you all.’

“Of course there were persons who were in their trucks with guns. We lived in a rural area.”

McClain said her brother was spurred to action watching his grandfather call a younger white man “Mr.” “That’s what triggered Bill. That really made Bill talk about and think about things like that,” she said.

Harbour told the AJC that when he graduated from high school in 1960, he wanted to attend college at nearby Jacksonville State University as a day student, which would be cheaper.

“They sent my [college] application back to my father and said they made a mistake, that no Blacks would attend JSU,” Harbour said.

Imagine Harbour’s surprise in 2011 when he got a call from JSU’s president asking him to be the commencement speaker.

His matriculation at what was then Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University was a bit of serendipity. He left Piedmont to get a job in Nashville, because he had relatives who lived there.

“One day, when I left downtown for my job, I caught the wrong bus. The bus driver told me I could get off and walk up that hill four blocks. While walking, I saw this big school. The next day, I got on the wrong bus on purpose,” Harbour recalled in his AJC interview.

In Nashville, he met Jim Zwerg, a white exchange student from Wisconsin who attended Fisk University. Zwerg, a fellow activist and Freedom Rider, came to Nashville to see what it was like to be in the minority.

John Lewis talks with fellow Freedom Rider James Zwerg who, along with Bill Harbour, faced violence and were jailed for their civil disobedience in 1961.
John Lewis talks with fellow Freedom Rider James Zwerg who, along with Bill Harbour, faced violence and were jailed for their civil disobedience in 1961.

Credit: Everett Collection Historical

Credit: Everett Collection Historical

Trained in nonviolent social resistance by the Rev. James Lawson, Nashville activists, mostly college students and ministers, were ready to face whatever came.

“One of the things that was unique about the Freedom Riders — and I think this plan was made in heaven — if you’re ready, things are going to happen,” Harbour told the AJC. “When you look at the Freedom Riders from Nashville, Jim Zwerg was from Wisconsin. Dr. Bernard LaFayette came from Florida, and he had no idea he was coming to Tennessee. I didn’t know I was going to be in Nashville. The whole group, something just happened to put us together. Jim Zwerg and I went to jail eight to 10 times in Nashville.”

After graduating, Harbour finished a masters degree at the University of Utah. He taught social studies and worked as a management analyst for the Unites States Army Forces Command in Atlanta.

Harbour is survived by his wife Doris, son Marcus, six siblings and other relatives. Visitation will be Tuesday, Sept. 1 from 1-6 p.m. at Murray Brothers Funeral Home, 1199 Utoy Springs Road SW in Atlanta. Funeral services will be 1 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 2 at Murray Brothers. Burial will be in Piedmont, Alabama.