Charles Person, a Freedom Rider then and now

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

How a ’60s civil rights campaign helped set the standard for modern social activism

“Let’s burn them [racial epithet] alive,” so begins the harrowing and inspirational tale of Buses Are A Comin’, Memoir of a Freedom Rider, written by Atlanta’s Charles Person.

In May of 1961, an interracial group of 13 men and women set off from Washington D.C bound for New Orleans, Louisiana, on an iconic civil rights mission.

The team was recruited by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization created in 1942 to battle discrimination using non-violent action.

In 1960, the Supreme Court had endorsed a previous ruling that racial segregation on the interstate public transport system was unconstitutional.

But in the South, the law was not enforced. Black people still had separate seating at the back of buses, and there were “Whites Only” bathrooms, waiting rooms, and lunch counters at bus terminals.

ExploreWho were the Freedom Riders? Five facts to know

To highlight the issue, the Freedom Riders, including future legendary statesman, John Lewis, boarded two interstate buses to travel through the South, challenging the illegal segregation policies.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently spoke with Person, who was just 18 at the time and the youngest of the group.

Q: How did you get involved in the Freedom Riders campaign?

A: I was rejected by Georgia Tech. I had applied for admission, and they found a way to deny me, even though I had been accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which at that time was one of the finest engineering schools in the country. So I could sit there and complain, or I could do something about it. And that motivated me to get involved.

Q: Did you know what you were getting into?

A: We didn’t have any grandiose idea that we’re going to do something great. We knew that we had the law on our side because we were in compliance with the Supreme Court decisions. We didn’t know whether it was going to be successful or not. But it was just a situation where you had to do something!

Q: You trained for the Freedom Ride. What did that involve?

A: The training basically was role-playing. You know, use all the nasty names, racial epithets. We learned over these kinds of scenarios not to retaliate with violence. If you fought back, that would justify you being beaten. It was difficult. But after a while, we had other mechanisms to help us. We sang songs, we prayed, and things like that.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Q: The trip took seven months, can you describe a typical day?

A: Well, we had roles to play during the day. Some people were designated as testers. Some people were designated observers. And some people were just to act as though they were normal passengers doing normal things. For example, if I were a tester today, I would say sit on the front of the bus as a Black person. And if you’re a white person and a tester, you would be sitting in the back of the bus. You would do the opposite of what our society was telling you to do.

Q: You generated a lot of attention along the way. How did you publicize what you were doing?

A: Our itinerary had been published; so in most places, we did get press coverage. And every evening, we had a mass meeting with the community in one of the colleges or at a church and introduced the Freedom Riders to them personally.

ExploreFreedom Riders: 60 years ago, they rode to challenge segregation

Q: Obviously, you were throwing down the gauntlet to segregationists. And you describe how John Lewis and others were beaten in South Carolina. What was your reception like in Georgia?

A: They complied [with the law]. They treated us like any other passengers. It was unique. In Georgia, all the cities either served us and treated us normally, or they closed the place down altogether. So nobody had any service.

Q: You met with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta. He predicted the trouble that followed. How did it start?

A: Everything was great until we got into Alabama. When we got into Anniston (Alabama), there were people outside the station along with a policeman. Our bus driver got off and talked to them. Then he gets back on the bus and says, I understand the [other] bus has been set on fire, and they’re taking the occupants to the hospital by the carloads.

Q: And what happened to the Freedom Riders on your bus?

A: The bus driver told us that until the Blacks get to the back, he wasn’t going to move the bus. And of course, we refused, and then people came on the bus and attacked us. And when the white Freedom Riders came to aid us, that really made them angry. And they would probably have killed Dr. Bergman, who was the oldest Freedom Rider, had his wife not begged them to stop.

But anyway, they got us to the back of the bus, and they physically threw us into a pile. And we rode like that from Anniston into Birmingham. And that’s when James Peck and I, who were designated testers, went into the waiting room, and all hell broke loose.

Q: By the end of your journey, many people had been beaten and jailed. Looking back, what do you think the Freedom Riders achieved?

A: I think one of the successes is that the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission) changed the ruling and removed all the [segregation] signs. And it affected all cities in all states at the same time, which was the first time something like that had happened. I think the Freedom Riders also laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of ’64 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

ExploreFreedom Riders Charles Person and Henry “Hank” James Thomas reflect on the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Q: Can you draw any parallels between the Freedom Riders and the recent anti-racism protests?

A: Well, the idea of any protest is to get people’s attention. And you know, we were both successful in doing that. Even people who didn’t like us, we got their attention. The young people [today], they had great numbers. I like that they had great enthusiasm. The biggest problem was that they allowed people who did not share the same beliefs as them to participate. Sometimes you do that for numbers. But numbers are not important if you don’t have control.

Q: What about the message?

A: I think sometimes the message never got across as to why the young people were in the street [last year]. Why were you demonstrating? And why are they going there versus going somewhere else? The only way you’re going to get allies and people to support you is for them to know what’s going on. And I think a lot of times, a lot of people in the community had no idea why there were so many people doing so many different things. But I don’t want to stifle their initiative. The beauty of protesting is that you’re only limited by your own imagination.


“Buses Are A Comin’, Memoir of a Freedom Rider”

By Charles Person, with Richard Rooker

St. Martin’s Press

$26.99, 304 Pages