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Guest Column
These Civil Rights foot soldiers changed the world — and now they’re gone | Column
Rip Patton and Dave Myers were ordinary people who found the moral and physical courage to do extraordinary things.
A Freedom Rider bus went up in flames when a fire bomb was tossed through a window near Anniston, Ala., in May 1961.
A Freedom Rider bus went up in flames when a fire bomb was tossed through a window near Anniston, Ala., in May 1961. [ AP ]
Published Aug. 28

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s produced a number of celebrated leaders, renowned national figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Jim Farmer, Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis. Virtually all of them are gone now, but many of us whom they inspired with their soaring oratory and charismatic leadership remember the crucial part they played in “redeeming the soul of America,” as Dr. King put it in 1963. While their efforts to create a “beloved community” based on liberty and justice for all fell short of their expansive dreams, the memory of their heroic struggle is a continuing source of hope and inspiration for millions of Americans.

Raymond Arsenault.  (Photo by Sudsy Tschiderer)
Raymond Arsenault. (Photo by Sudsy Tschiderer) [ PHOTO BY SUDSY TSCHIDERER | Photo by Sudsy Tschiderer ]

Unfortunately, an important part of this story is often overlooked. When recalling and celebrating the civil rights struggle, we sometimes fail to acknowledge the sacrifices and contributions of the thousands of rank-and-file activists who propelled and sustained the movement from below. These largely unsung heroes, often referred to as the nonviolent movement’s “foot soldiers,” deserve our attention and respect, particularly now when many of them are passing from the scene.

Earlier this month, two particularly valiant foot soldiers died within days of each other. One, Ernest “Rip” Patton, was Black; the other, David Myers, was white. But identifying them by race is largely irrelevant to their common story of commitment and courage.

Both were men of faith and profound moral conviction. And both were Freedom Riders, born a few weeks apart in 1940, two of the more than 400 volunteers, mostly college students, who put their bodies on the line in 1961 by boarding freedom buses to challenge the Jim Crow laws that mandated racial segregation among interstate passengers.

Ernest "Rip" Patton
Ernest "Rip" Patton

Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Freedom Rides, though nonviolent, were deliberately confrontational and dangerous, designed to force the newly elected Kennedy Administration to take a firm stand in favor of civil rights by intervening to protect the Riders’ constitutional right to equal access to public transportation. All of the Freedom Riders, including Patton and Myers, knew they were risking injury and perhaps even death by boarding those freedom buses headed into the Klan-infested Deep South. But, ignoring the dire warnings from friends and family and refusing to pass on the responsibility for change to future generations, they decided it was time to fight for freedom now, not freedom later.

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Rip Patton and Dave Myers were ordinary people who found the moral and physical courage to do extraordinary things. Born and raised in a working-class Black family in Tennessee, Rip was an accomplished student and musician who won a scholarship to Nashville’s Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College, where he became the drum major of the college’s famed marching band.

In 1960, after attending nonviolent workshops conducted by the divinity student and Gandhian intellectual James Lawson, he became involved in the Nashville sit-in movement, and on May 24, 1961, he, along with John Lewis and Jim Farmer, was one of 15 Riders on the first Greyhound freedom bus from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi. Arrested at the Jackson Greyhound terminal, he was convicted of breaching the peace and later spent more than a month incarcerated at the infamous Parchman Prison Farm.

Rip’s involvement in the Freedom Rides led to his permanent expulsion — along with 13 other Riders — from Tennessee A&I. Undaunted, he continued his civil rights activities for several years, but without a college degree he was relegated to working as a long-distance truck driver hauling automobiles. During his 30-plus years on the road, he sometimes found part-time work as a jazz drummer. But he never had the opportunity to take advantage of his hard-earned college education.

Finally, in 2008, while in retirement in Nashville, he and the other Tennessee A&I Freedom Riders were awarded honorary doctoral degrees, thanks to political pressure exerted by the noted journalist and former Justice Department official John Seigenthaler. During the next decade, after several books and an Emmy-winning PBS documentary placed a spotlight on the former Freedom Riders, Rip enjoyed a second career as a highly sought-after lecturer and civil rights tour leader who punctuated his presentations with freedom songs beautifully rendered in baritone.

David Myers
David Myers [ Provided ]

Dave Myers took a different path to the movement. Born into poverty on a hardscrabble Indiana farm, he became a star student and high school track star whose only chance for higher education was to accept a track scholarship to the historically Black Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio. One of a handful of white students at Central State, he fell in love with one of them, Winonah Beamer, a poor white girl from Cleveland who shared his commitment to the social gospel and pacifism. Inspired by a Quaker faculty mentor, Myers traveled to Montgomery, where he joined a Freedom Ride to Jackson on May 28, 1961, but not before warning Winonah that it was too dangerous for her to follow him. Ignoring his advice, she participated in a Ride on June 9 and ended up in the same Jackson jail where he was incarcerated.

Winonah (Beamer) Myers as a college student and Freedom Rider in 1961
Winonah (Beamer) Myers as a college student and Freedom Rider in 1961 [ Provided ]

They both eventually ended up in Parchman Prison, where she remained for six months, defiantly refusing to accept bail even though the warden tried to intimidate her by putting her in a cell on death row. During her final three months in jail, the outwardly gentle but tough-minded 19-year-old was the only remaining Freedom Rider at Parchman. Married in April 1962, Dave and Winonah went on to raise a large family and to enjoy fulfilling careers, she as a mental rehabilitation counselor working with disabled adults, and he as a newspaper and television photographer and reporter.

In the late 1990s, after retiring and relocating to a trailer park in Ellenton, Florida, they became the pillars of a predominantly Black church and frequent speakers to high school and college students, many of whom were enthralled by their harrowing personal stories of struggle and redemption. Winonah died in March 2018, but for several years, they both worked part time, he as a volunteer at a biological research project and she (after initially being denied employment because of her criminal record!) as a toll collector on the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

It is difficult for me to do full justice to my profound respect and admiration for these unsung heroes. Getting to know Rip and Dave (and Winonah), and others like them, changed my view of what it means to be a responsible and caring citizen. Indeed, whether we realize it or not, their actions on behalf of racial equality and social justice six decades ago enlarged all of our lives.

As we now face what appears to be a perilous future fraught with threats to democracy, common decency, and the very planet on which we live, let us hope we can draw upon the foot soldiers’ precious legacy. Who knows, if we keep them in our hearts and minds, the memory of their strength of character and purpose, and above all, their ennobling commitment to an inclusive beloved community, might help to light the way to a brighter tomorrow.

Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History emeritus, at the University of South Florida, is the author of “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.”