GALEN HOLLEY: The drama of the Freedom Riders speaks for itself

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

A few months ago Jeanne Luckett walked in to the Journal office with Freedom Rider Hank Thomas, this tall black man with a demeanor like Sidney Poitier and a voice like James Earl Jones.
I’m embarrassed to say it was my first, real encounter with the story of the Freedom Riders.
Journalists are always looking for graphic details, things we think will enliven a piece and make it sing. The story of the Freedom Riders is one that really tells itself. All the journalist has to do, essentially, is get out of the way and let the story speak.
Thomas is a Vietnam vet, and anybody who knows a Vietnam vet knows they don’t usually like talking, and they’re often uncomfortable saying anything that brings attention to themselves.
Thomas is very good speaker, but you can tell it costs him something telling these stories over and again. He recounted the firebombing of the bus outside Anniston as if he were reading a grocery list.
Who’s to say, but if those hate-filled people hadn’t feared being blown up with the gas tank, they might have held that bus door shut and burned those riders alive. Something of the unspeakable evil of that action remains in Thomas’ voice, some hesitation, almost as if he still can’t believe human beings could do that to each other.
Fred Clark knew he was called to fight for civil rights when he and his grandmother were forced to move to the back of a bus when he was just a child. In his teens he worked under the likes of Martin Luther King., Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer, organizing student movements and handing out literature.
Clark, now a school teacher, told me of riding back many evenings from Tougaloo College with Medgar Evers. The light blue Oldsmobile was well known around the area, Clark said, and for fear of being spotted Clark usually had Evers drop him off a few blocks from his home.
One gets a sense, talking with the Freedom Riders, of the close-knit, familiar bonds that existed between civil rights workers and the common people who supported them, cooking meals, offering a bed, a shower, a ride, throwing bail.
Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner spent the night in Clark’s home before they were lynched.
“Many riders stayed in black neighborhoods,” said Hezekiah Watkins, describing how the network of local people opened their homes as folks from up North came and went, often after getting out of jail.
There’s been some rumbling about Gov. Haley Barbour welcoming the Freedom Riders at next week’s reunion celebration. Some feel the governor is exercising damage control after having put his foot in his mouth last year about Citizens Councils.
Thomas and others have made it clear that they’re not coming back to Jackson to gloat, or to rub their victory in anybody’s face. This is, they say, a happy occasion.
Watkins is no shrinking violet, and he, for one, is eager to hear a good word from Barbour.
“Mississippi has long been considered the worst state for racism, and I think it’s tremendously important for the governor to be visible and to step up and make us feel welcome,” said Watkins.
“We’re coming to rejoice, rejoin and reacquaint,” he said. “All this other griping and mumbo jumbo is completely irrelevant.”

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or galen.holley@journalinc.com.