By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
The first group of “outside agitators” was smoked out of a bus with a Molotov cocktail and beaten on the side of an Alabama highway.
Would-be riders from Mississippi faced persecution before they could board, but the experience forged them into lifelong champions of justice.
“We walked into the Trailways terminal, and were told to keep going, to move out, and when we didn’t we were arrested for breach of peace,” said Mary Harrison Lee, then a student at Tougaloo College. In June 1961 Harrison found herself in a Jackson jail, alongside other locals, for throwing her lot in with the Freedom Riders.
More than 100 of the 400-plus riders will converge Sunday in Jackson for a week-long celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the rides. Some Mississippians who joined the efforts that historic spring and summer say they got involved by chance, while others were eager to be part of something they knew was a watershed moment for civil rights.
In May the Congress for Racial Equality organized groups of mostly Northern students and activists. They traveled south, on Greyhound and Trailways buses, in order to show that laws forbidding racial segregation in facilities servicing interstate travel weren’t being enforced.
Most of the riders were from places like Howard University, where students signed up for what they knew was a dangerous venture.
In the South grassroots support for the rides grew as news reverberated throughout black communities.
Harrison Lee signed up as a alternate after becoming curious about a group of Tougaloo students huddled around organizer James Bevel.
The rides, according to one native Mississippian and author, created excitement at a time when many felt there hadn’t been any real progress in civil rights since the 1954 Supreme Court decision declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
“It had just been so long. People had it so hard for so long, particularly in the Delta, and when news of the Freedom Rides began to spread it really lit a spark of hope,” said Danny Collum, a Greenwood native and author of the new novel, “White Boy,” a fictional account of a young man coming of age in the civil rights era.
The first Freedom Riders pulled into Jackson on May 24, and over the following months Mississippians with a passion for justice, along with some who were just plain curious, went to the bus stations to have a look.
The arrival of the first riders began a series of non-violent protests that landed whites and blacks, men and women, Yankees and Mississippians in jail alongside one another.
Curiosity killed the cat, so the saying goes, and there were times when young Hezekiah Watkins thought he was a goner.
In July then 13-year-old Watkins disobeyed his mother’s warnings and went to the Greyhound terminal in Jackson to see what all the fuss was about.
Before he knew it Watkins was swept into the terminal and wound up spending three hellish days in Parchman.
Fred Clark was older than Watkins, and went to the Jackson Trailways station with more of a sense of purpose, but he too wound up in Parchman without ever setting foot on a bus.
At 18 Clark was already an experienced civil rights activist, and, like other Mississippians, had worked at his own peril promoting things like black voter education. In July he went to the station as part of a group, knowing full well he wouldn’t be allowed to buy a ticket.
“Diane Nash gave us the money, but we never made it on board,” said Clark, speaking of the Fisk University student who became one of the early leaders of the rides.
Dolores Lynch Williams was just 15 when she began to feel what she describes as God’s love of righteousness and justice making a demand on her life.
She told her parents she was going to church, but many evenings Lynch Williams attended meetings with community organizers and activists at the Masonic Temple.
At the Trailways station Lynch Williams was handcuffed and arrested for standing in a “whites only” waiting area.
Freedom Riders came and went through Mississippi, many returning to schools and jobs in northern states, but locals, like Lynch Williams, who dared defy the status quo couldn’t escape the repercussions.
“The police would drive by our house, and shine a light in our faces and harass us,” she said. She spent a year on probation after her arrest.
“I was an outcast even among many members of my own community,” said Watkins, describing how some blacks, echoing the sentiments of some civil rights leaders, said the Freedom Riders were doing more harm than good.
The experience of being incarcerated alongside the riders steeled some locals, like Clark, in their commitment to justice, and made newborn activists of others.
In 1963 Watkins helped organize a walkout among students at the all-black Jackson high schools of Lanier, Brinkley and Jim Hill.
“All these high school kids were loaded onto big garbage trucks, and taken and locked up at the fair grounds,” said Watkins, whose mother housed and fed several of out of town Freedom Riders, one example, he said, of the many ways in which Mississippians, including a number of whites, quietly supported the cause.
Turning a page
Lynch Williams’ four daughters are all college graduates. One has a doctorate and another will soon finish hers.
A generation ago that might have been an unrealistic hope for black women.
Lynch Williams got involved in the Freedom Rides when she was just a girl because she wanted to make sure life would be different for her kids.
“They’ve never seen signs that say “whites only” or “colored,” she said.
Those signs came down in bus stations on Sept. 22, 1961, by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission.
The Freedom Rides sparked national attention, forcing the federal government to get involved and giving teeth to laws against segregation that states, including Mississippi, were being allowed to ignore.
“They (the Freedom Rides) were an expression of a dawning awareness that really began after World War II, when white veterans came back from Europe, a non-racialized environment. It was awareness that things weren’t as they should be,” said Collum. “With the Freedom Rides we have a historic event, in the Mississippi capital, that puts flesh on that.”
After her arrest, Philippino-born Mary Harrison Lee went on to have a 30-year career as an educator, the last 19 of which were in the Jackson Public School System.
Most people, she said, have heard of the big names and events in the civil rights movement, like Rosa Parks, the Montgomery bus boycott and Martin Luther King Jr. But until this year, with the attention being given to the reunion in Jackson, the Freedom Rides haven’t been discussed much.
“We’ve come an awfully long way, and children today can go practically anywhere,” Harrison Lee said. “But racism still shows, sometimes, in the way people behave and what’s in their hearts.”
It’s unfortunate, Collum said, that it took ‘outside agitation’ to start things moving on the racial front in Mississippi, but it proved to be a timely blessing.
“I think there was a sense at that time, particularly with the election of John Kennedy, that society was ready for a change,” said Collum.
“We’d turned a page, and something historic was occurring. We needed something to shine the spotlight on the moral conflict that a lot of us were experiencing,” he said.
Unfortunately that spotlight involved bloodshed, and untold numbers of psychological and emotional scars that may never heal.
“We’re talking about systemic evil here, deep-seated, ingrained, institutional evil, that for so long was part of the fiber of our Southern culture,” said the Rev. Ken Corley, a retired United Methodist pastor and Mississippi native who now lives in Pontotoc. “From within the culture it’s hard even to recognize it, much less to overcome it,” he said.
“As a culture we realized eventually that this was grossly wrong. It’s a matter, I think, of being confronted by the gospel.”
There’s a phrase from the Book of Esther that Lynch Williams has been going over in her mind, one that helped her get through her arrest, subsequent persecution and the thousands of days, before and after the summer of 1961, when racism hounded her relentlessly.
“For such a time as this,” she said. “God was preparing me, making me brave and strong.”
She learned that strength, she said, as a girl at New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church on Whitfield Street in Jackson, just a few blocks from the bus station.
“God knew,” said Lynch Williams, “that one day I would be a Freedom Rider.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.