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April 19, 2014

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Getting on the Bus, 50 Years Later

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Washington, D.C. - Fifty years ago, almost to the day, 13 black and white teens and 20-somethings boarded two buses and headed into the Deep South.
Some were veterans of the early lunch counter sit-ins in their towns or activists on their college campuses. They set out that morning in May of 1961 on what was planned to be a trip from D.C. to New Orleans, with stops at bus terminals and lunch counters along the way to challenge the segregation of interstate travelers and to test the resolve of Southern racists who clung viciously to their Jim Crow laws.

They came to be known as the Freedom Riders, and the course they charted over the months-long movement would inevitably change American history.

But their journey wouldn't be without pain and bloodshed. In fact, that first group never made it to New Orleans. They faced mob and Ku Klux Klan violence. Many were beaten, jailed and humiliated for little more than ordering a cup of coffee at the wrong counter or sitting in the wrong section of a waiting room in towns like Anniston and Birmingham in Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee; and Jackson, Mississippi.

The Freedom Riders braved the mobs, the unchecked hoodlums fueled by a hate that only God or the Devil could know. Metal rods crashed down like thunder claps on black and white skulls in equal measure.

"A lot of people will say that we went into the struggle unarmed," said Diane Nash, a Freedom Rider who organized students at Fisk University in Tennessee. "But that's not true. Just as there's that day in the military when a soldier is given a rifle, what we were given is power, energy generated by love."

Eventually more than 400 Freedom Riders descended upon the South, filling buses, trains and jail cells, forcing the nation and its leaders to take notice.

Those ghosts still linger along so much hallowed ground in the South, at boarded-up bus stations and one-time five and dimes in Mississippi and Alabama - towns that fought tooth and nail to keep blacks and whites separate and their ways of life intact.


While many people were seriously injured during the Freedom Rides, no one was killed, but many others would die in the years to come, struggling for equal rights.

"If you were to dredge the Mississippi River, you'd come up with the remains of many civil rights activists," said Nash.

So it was a few mornings ago that a handful of original Freedom Riders, their hair grayer and their steps just a bit slower, stood on a grassy knoll across the street from the now-shuttered Greyhound station, where part of the original group boarded the bus.

They set out on a journey through the South to revisit those days of tumult and give the group of 40 students who joined them a sense of the men and women behind the liner notes and the too-short school lessons on the Civil Rights Movement.

Robert Singleton and his wife, Helen, made the trip back from California to join the ride, still by each other's side as they were in the early days of the movement.

Joan Mulholland, a Virginian, is here too - her eyes are at once warm and steely. She has a head full of regal white hair that is pulled beneath a bandanna on most days. Ernest "Rip" Patton, a Tennessean with a deep, rumbling baritone voice, can be heard regaling students with stories of back when:

"If we had not continued the Freedom Rides then, I don't think there could have been another movement for a very long time," said Patton. "We would have had to get too many people killed."

Over the last couple days, the group made its way through Virginia and North Carolina, retracing the original trip, city by city. They stopped at important sites along the way like Virginia Union University, where many civil rights activists and Freedom Riders like Rev. Reginald Green emerged to lead sit-ins and peaceful protests.

"When I saw that bus in flames, I knew I had to get involved," Green said, recalling the moment when he saw the Riders' bus fire bombed and decided to join the Freedom Riders. "It's really emotional to see that we have students who are interested in learning what this all meant. Does something for my old psyche."

Yesterday, the group rolled into Greensboro, North Carolina, and visited the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

The museum is a converted Woolworth's department store and lunch counter, where a group of courageous North Carolina A&T students led a sit-in that sparked similar movements across the South. The original counter, seats and tiles are still intact from those days in 1960.

But deep inside the museum, there is the wall of shame, with illuminated photos set behind fractured glass of lynchings and lynch mobs and the bloated and disfigured body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was murdered and dumped in the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi after he allegedly whistled at a white woman.

And for the first time it all became real for these students, black and white, whose eyes were wet with emotion:

"The inhumanity of man," said Tania Smith, 20, a student at American University in Washington, D.C., as she dabbed tears from her cheeks. It was Smith's first time seeing the photo of Till, which became a grotesque symbol of Southern brutality:

"For men to have so much hate. It shows how entrenched the system was. It was full blown hatred."

Beyond the hate, evident in the hole in Till's head, and the marks around his neck, where his white attackers tied an industrial fan (the better to sink him in the river with), Smith said the image and the wall of shame also spoke to the strength of those like the Freedom Riders who fought back with nonviolence and peace.

"It shows the bravery of the Freedom Riders and those in the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn't just a fight against segregation, it was a fight against hate," she said. "They fought with weapons of love."



Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

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