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Students join a few original Freedom Riders on the ride of their lives


Sometimes it's a song. Or an unexpected question.

But no matter how often he talks about those fateful days in 1961 when he joined the first wave of Freedom Riders — a biracial group of 436 activists who rode buses into the South to challenge segregation — Charles Person still has moments when the emotion nearly overwhelms him.

Relaxing in front of the King Center memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta, Person compared it to the post-traumatic stress some soldiers experience after war.

The beatings, the insults and the life-threatening terror he endured from white mobs in those days can still rise up to grab his throat and moisten his eyes, even as he tries to explain to a new generation what happened 50 years ago.

"You remember how graphic it was. . . . Sometimes, I can't even finish answering a question when it comes over me," said Person, who was 18 and the youngest among the first 13 riders to test the system as they headed south from Washington, D.C. "They turned on the white people with us worse. That's what really stuck with me the most."

And as we spoke in mid May, he was about to do it again.

Person had joined University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor Ray Arsenault and 40 handpicked college students partway through a 10-day journey re­-creating the Freedom Riders' original bus trip through the South.

The excursion was organized in connection with the PBS debut this month of an American Experience documentary based on Arsenault's 2006 book, Freedom Riders.

And Person was waiting to join the bus three days into its journey to New Orleans from Washington, D.C., ready to add his dignified voice to the many riders, historians and other figures from that period trying to bring to life a tumultuous time.

He's a 68-year-old grandfather who uses a walker with wheels now, thanks to recent knee replacement surgery.

But Person didn't think twice about devoting a week to climbing up and down the steep stairs of a modern Greyhound bus — its facade repainted to feature the Freedom Riders logo and 1960s vehicle style — so he could school a band of 20-somethings on a civil rights moment that changed the country forever.

"For so many years, we just didn't talk about it," he said, noting how much speaking about that time now can feel like therapy. "This has given us an opportunity to share."

Bringing history alive

For five years, Ray Arsenault has taken groups of students from USF St. Petersburg and Stetson University along the route of the original Freedom Riders, trying to transmit his love of history like a spark along a power line.

But the explosion of media interest in the story of the riders pegged to the 50th anniversary this month gave Arsenault a unique opportunity. Armed with a $250,000 check from the family that built Target stores and a little sweat equity from Boston PBS affiliate WGBH, he developed the mother of all Freedom Riders tours.

It took more than a year and required sorting through nearly 1,000 applications, but the result was a sprawling excursion incorporating tutorials from living Freedom Riders and activists, and stops at major civil rights historic sites from Lynchburg, Va., to Jackson, Miss., and beyond.

A world-renowned historian who has talked up his Freedom Riders book and film everywhere from Oprah Winfrey's show to National Public Radio, Arsenault knew he could show these students a lot.

What he wasn't prepared for was how much they would teach him.

Students can have "such a cynicism and skepticism about politics, about government, about the media," he said. "When they get to confront a historical actor directly, I think it sort of gets beyond their defenses. They allow themselves to feel and absorb . . . (when) they're accustomed to deflecting things."

Riding to Atlanta from Augusta, Ga., the atmosphere on the bus was celebratory and energetic, with students singing new lyrics to songs the riders chanted in 1961 and holding impromptu poetry slams. Stops in Virginia and North Carolina had brought tears and reflection, as the youths scrambled to document their experiences in blog posts, video diaries, long-form essays and photo collages.

During one of many group discussions about issues of difference and stereotyping, Bakhrom Ismoilov, a Muslim from Tajikistan attending college in Oregon, recalled a teacher who asked his class whether communism or terrorism was worse.

"I was born into communism and I'm Muslim; what was I supposed to say?" said Ismoilov, 22, shrugging sadly. In post-9/11 America, he sees too many parallels between today's anti-Muslim prejudice and the pro-segregation sentiments riders faced in 1961.

Stephanie Burton, 21, a journalism major at historically black Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, can rattle off a list of lessons learned with earnest enthusiasm, from the power of nonviolence to better understanding of her grandmother's challenges.

Still, Burton almost surprised herself recalling a subtler moment. She and fellow Alabama native Marshall Houston were talking about their experiences on the trip, crying and hugging their way through the stories.

Houston, 22, a seventh-generation white Alabaman now studying at the University of Alabama, often jokes that he must have slave owners in his family history somewhere.

But he's earnest about the lessons that come from moments like the one he shared with Burton, seeing families and culture through each other's eyes.

And then she realized: "I've never felt that before about — and I'm ashamed to say this — I never felt that way about somebody outside of my own race," Burton said.

Learning in Atlanta

Once at the King Center, students got the grand tour from a master — the Rev. Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr., an Ybor City native.

In 1961, Lafayette joined the riders after the first group of 13 were attacked in Anniston, Ala., and Birmingham — part of a group of students from Nashville who came down to prove that mob violence couldn't easily end the rides.

Lafayette has the civil rights bona fides. He co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960, and was appointed to top administrative jobs at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the 1968 Poor People's Campaign by Dr. King.

Stopping in the refurbished Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father once preached, Lafayette, decked out in a natty straw hat and a charcoal gray suit, responded to the students' questions about nonviolent protest.

Over a day of discovery in Atlanta that included a luncheon at King's alma mater, historically black Morehouse College, there was just one time when Lafayette lost his cool — when the subject of King's treatment in the PBS film came up.

Freedom Riders describes how the early riders, mostly 20-something college students, lost respect for King after he refused to join them on the rides in Birmingham.

But Lafayette, who considered King a friend and mentor, fumes that the film seemed to be giving the legendary leader short shrift to stoke a controversy.

"Those kids didn't have no house bombed with their wife and baby in it, okay?" Lafayette told a small knot of admirers standing around his table. "So I didn't like it. They didn't do justice to him."

Arsenault says later, after being told of Lafayette's anger, that the film didn't describe all the nuances of why King didn't go on the rides, including aggressive pressure from his chief of staff.

"That's how history is distorted," Lafayette said to the table, as heads nodded in agreement. "I don't usually get upset, but they didn't have to bash Martin Luther King in order to make a point about the movement."

Shameful past

Hours later, as the students left their bus in Anniston, Ala., they were met with tears.

The emotion came courtesy of local physician David Dawson, a 53-year-old City Council member who handed each new freedom rider a tiny lapel pin reading "Anniston. The model city."

Standing at the door to a dinner reception, Dawson grew more agitated until his greetings turned to sobs as he apologized for what the original Freedom Riders endured here 50 years ago.

"I'm so sad for what happened to these people," he repeated again and again, until even the small circle of journalists gathered to capture his words grew uncomfortable.

Fifty years ago, a Greyhound bus carrying half the riders was attacked in this town, its wheels slashed and windows broken. The vehicle limped to a stop 5 miles outside town, where the bus was firebombed and the riders were beaten.

But in the 21st century, Anniston has rolled out its red carpet for their return, eager to show progress. And Janie Forsyth Mc­Kinney couldn't stop smiling.

Five decades ago, she was 12, compelled by her conscience to run out and bring water to the people left choking and beaten after the Greyhound bus was firebombed in front of her family's store along State Route 202.

She couldn't have cared less that many of them were black and she was white. Or that some in Anniston might have retaliated against her, if she hadn't been so young.

After telling her story in the Freedom Riders film and on Oprah, she has found a new bond far from her hometown's old prejudice.

"It feels like I am among my true family," said McKinney, who now lives in Los Angeles, hugging the original riders like long-lost friends. "I feel like I did what any human being would do."

The city's effort clearly moved Hank Thomas, a Freedom Rider beaten in the Anniston bus attack, who went from the front lines of the civil rights struggle to the front lines of Vietnam, where he was wounded in a North Vietnamese ambush.

His barrel-chested voice loaded with emotion, Thomas told the room how he met here 20 years ago with descendants of the men who attacked him. Back then, they were still unwilling to concede how wrong their parents' actions may have been.

"They said, 'You got shot in Vietnam because you were the enemy. When you came down here, you were the enemy,' " recalled Thomas, now flanked by his family, including a young granddaughter. "I am very pleased that I am perhaps finally welcomed back to Anniston as an American citizen."

Around the room, eyes grew moist with tears. Then Richard Couch delivered the knockout blow.

He's 46 and wasn't yet born when his father helped the mob beat the original Freedom Riders. But Couch, now a local lawyer, rose from his seat to ask Thomas for his forgiveness, renouncing the racist views of a father he hasn't spoken with for more than 10 years.

"I'm not my dad. I'm one of the people who (would have been) on the bus," said the attorney, who hugged Thomas tightly while the crowd exploded in applause. "In some way, I want the stain taken from my family name."

Burton, the FAMU student, almost vibrated with emotion during Couch's declaration, tears running down her face. It was the sixth time she had cried on this trip.

But in a town with generations of racial strife in its history, moments of reconciliation may not last long, as Burton discovered when she ducked into a restroom to compose herself.

"There was this black woman there, a native of the city, who said, 'Don't waste your tears on half those people in here,' " the student said later, recalling how the woman described past injustices against the black population and its lack of power.

"All of a sudden, like, that deflated the whole moment," Burton said wistfully. "I know Anniston still has a long way to go, but I wish she could have let me feel that moment a little longer."

Uncertain motives

Edward Wood never thought he'd live to see this day.

At 84, he's the proud son of a slave — they called them sharecroppers back then — whose tangled family history inspired a documentary by St. Petersburg filmmaker Stan Arthur, called My Anniston.

So when Wood heard that the city was erecting two murals downtown detailing the Freedom Riders' story and pushing to raise money for a 4-acre park where the bus was firebombed, he had to see it for himself.

"It's indescribable how I feel," said Wood, who added he was among the first black men to challenge local segregation laws in the 1950s. "I'm not bragging, but I thought the system was wrong. I was willing to die for my country, and I was willing to die to make the country what it ought to be."

But at a ribbon-cutting for the murals on the morning after the tour's arrival, packed with speeches from local business contributors and area media coverage, the student riders began to feel that they had become a prop in someone else's play.

University of Pennsylvania student Meghan Chandra looked sadly at a 24-page special section on the rides produced by the Anniston Star newspaper.

On the back was a full page ad supporting the effort from the Solutia chemical company. Solutia joined the Monsanto Co. in 2003 to pay $700 million to settle claims regarding PCB contamination by more than 20,000 Anniston residents.

Without referring to the payout, Chandra, 19, wondered why Solutia was involved in this event. "It seems very predatory to me," she said. "I don't have any answers. I don't have any solutions. It's just heartbreaking."

After the students had piled on their bus to head toward Nashville, Arsenault explained that the town is in dire economic straits and may hope to bring some tourism dollars by adding civil rights attractions.

Still, the professor noted, citizens and officials in Anniston have banded together across racial lines to recognize a difficult history in ways many other communities have not.

As the official ceremonies ended, local resident James English rode up on his bicycle, drawn by the crowds.

"All this kind of brings back old memories for people who would rather not talk about it," said English, 62, who is white and admitted that many residents weren't particularly pleased by the memorials. "I know it was a big thing back then. But talking about it now just hurts people's feelings, which don't make any sense at all."

On the bus for good

Like every student on the bus, Burton was determined to use this ride as an inspiration to work for change at home, filling notebooks with ideas like starting a newspaper for the homeless in Tallahassee.

Meeting on their own, even after each day's exhaustive itinerary was complete, the student riders formed strong bonds, promising to help one another move forward.

"That's been the theme of the entire trip. It's history. We learn from it, but we have to move on," she said. "How can we bond together and tackle something new? . . . (Learning) that the person you oppose is not your enemy, their ideology is your enemy. . . . I can use that in my own life."

Arsenault wasn't surprised.

"It always . . . turns out to (affect students) more than they expect," said the professor, days before the tour would conclude in New Orleans on May 17, capped by a huge party and tearful good-byes.

"They have no idea how this is going to change them," he said. "They're not going to be the same person at the end of this, and there's no going back. . . . They're on the bus for good now."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or

Students join a few original Freedom Riders on the ride of their lives 05/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 28, 2011 9:49pm]
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